Creating a safer cyberspace for future digital natives

  • TECH
  • Thursday, 23 Jun 2016

Tough ordeal: Cyber bullying victims are likely to keep quiet and do nothing instead of alerting their parents.

In the digital era, the Internet unleashes a new world of extraordinary opportunities for our youths. Being connected not only enriches their lives, but significantly increases future prospects by widening horizons of knowledge. 

Yet, it is a double-edged sword. The Internet also poses a major risk by exposing our youths to cyber harm such as Internet-related bullying, identity theft and fraud, exposure to pornography and abuse.

According to Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC), the number of active Internet users in Malaysia crossed the 20.1 million mark in 2015, on the back of a 72.2% broadband penetration rate. Of that total, an estimated 16.8 million are also active social media users.

Undeniably, the Internet has added a new dimension in the way people communicate, interact and socialise with others. Malaysians spend an average of 3.6 hours per day on the Internet with 79% spent on search engines, 84% on social networks, 58% to use online maps for direction and 53% on online videos. 

Based on an Internet Users Survey 2014 conducted by MCMC, school-aged children are among the fastest growing group of digital users — nearly 70% of children with Internet access at home spend an average of eight hours a week on the Internet, mostly on social networks.

Adding fuel to this phenomenal growth has been smartphone penetration which drives more users to access the Internet than ever. Smartphone user base in Malaysia is expected to reach 11 million by 2016 with an upward trend of 10% CAGR (compound annual growth rate) to 2017, according to a new study by mobile marketing and commerce company Vserv. 

The anonymous, borderless and viral nature of the cyberspace has also made it easier for bullying and harassment. Based on the latest key findings from a Safe Internet study by Telenor Group, an estimated 37% of Malaysian students surveyed admitted to having experienced cyberbullying, which is defined as ‘being bullied or disturbed online’ or ‘being bullied by the same person both online and offline’.

And as more children gain access to the benefits of the Internet, their exposure to online risks have also escalated. What is even more alarming is that vast majority of children have taken very few protective steps – either because they do not think it is necessary, or because they do not know how. Many believe they are safe online but yet, they are not concerned with the invasion of privacy or the anonymity of those they interact with.

Growing digital resilience among youths

CyberSecurity Malaysia has been at the forefront in nurturing young Malaysians through our community programme CyberSAFE – Cyber Security Awareness for Everyone ( Initiated since 2010 in collaboration with Ministry of Education and Digi, CyberSAFE in Schoolis public-private collaboration between CyberSecurity Malaysia, the Ministry of Education and Digi. It has reached over 100,000 students, teachers, and parents from 1,400 schools and rural Internet centres around Malaysia. The programme consists of interactive workshops and guidebooks to improve education on Internet safety for students and their families.

Among the most prominent projects is the annual CyberSAFE in Schools Survey to identify schoolchildren’s experience with existing and new categories of cyber risk, as well as their capacity to protect and recover from these negative experiences. These include problematic situations and negative experiences such as peer pressure, parent-child gap, sexting and cyberbullying.

The latest 2015 survey, themed Growing Digital Resilience among Malaysian Schoolchildren on Staying Safe Online, covered more than 18,000 schoolchildren from 216 secondary schools from all 14 states in Malaysia, over a period of seven months. The survey results showed that Malaysian youth are gaining ‘digital resilience’ and becoming more aware of safe online practices, including what recourse they have when they become victims. However, there are areas of specific concerns which need to be addressed. 

The survey results indicate that quite a number of schoolchildren are considered by the own peers to be addicted to the Internet. This is rather alarming as addiction could lead to increased exposure to negative elements in the cyberspace. This situation is made worse when parents start granting more access to the Internet as a form of reward to their children.

There also appears to be a strong correlation between peer pressure and cyber-bullying. Respondents in the survey who admitted to being affected by peer pressure in the cyberspace also experienced cyber bullying. For those who were bullied online, the survey results indicate however there is likelihood that they will keep quiet and do nothing instead of alerting their parents or guardians about it. In addition, inappropriate languages are found to be widely used during online interactions. 

To date, CyberSecurity Malaysia has introduced various key measures to raise awareness on cyber bullying among Internet users especially students, such as organising its annual ‘Safer Internet Day’ in order to teach the students how to use the online technology in a more responsible way.

Instilling cyber wellness

As Malaysians embrace digital lifestyle, the importance of cyber wellness cannot be overstressed. Cyber wellness refers to the positive well-being of Internet users. To attain such wellness calls for an understanding of appropriate norms and responsible behavior with regard to technology use as well as knowledge, skills, values and attitudes on how to protect oneself and other Internet users in the cyber world. 

Malaysians are now exposed to the Internet from an increasingly young age. In this regard, parents still hold the key in instilling responsible use of the Internet at home. It is important for parents to create an open dialogue with their children and ensure they feel comfortable to seek help from them should they encounter inappropriate online behaviour. Teaching a child about cybersecurity must be viewed as teaching him or her everyday safety.

When it comes to Internet use, parents must impart certain basic rules such as always checking the sender before opening an e-mail and not clicking on suspicious links. Our youth should also be mindful of what they say, do and share online. 

As future digital citizens, our children must learn to develop a keen sense of cyber security alertness and possess competent knowledge on cyber threats. Hence, we need to advocate cyber wellness and inspire our young to use the Internet in positive ways so that our future generations will become responsible cyber-savvy citizens. Early education will certainly provide the basic foundation for good cyber habits and nurture positive attitudes in the digital era.

Dr Amirudin Abdul Wahab is chief executive officer of CyberSecurity Malaysia, the national specialist centre for cybersecurity.
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