How to secure Uganda’s cyberspace

Posted on July 7, 2016 11:57 am

According to Uganda Communication Commission latest data available publicly, the East African country has estimated 11 million internet users.In the digital era, the Internet has brought a new world of extraordinary opportunities for Ugandans. Being connected not only enriches their lives, but significantly increases future prospects by widening horizons of knowledge. However, it is a double-edged sword. The Internet also poses a major risk by exposing Ugandans to cyber harm such as Internet-related bullying, identity theft and fraud, exposure to pornography and abuse.According to a recent report, the number of active Internet users in Uganda crossed the 4.1 million mark in 2015. Of that total, an estimated 4.8 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. Ugandans spend an average of 4.9 hours per day on the Internet with 84% spent on search engines, 53% on social networks, 29% to use online maps for direction and 39% on online videos. Based on an Internet Users Survey 2015, school aged children are among the fastest growing group of digital users with nearly 50% of children with Internet access at home spend an average of six 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 Uganda is expected to reach 5 million by 2017 according to a new study by mobile marketing and commerce company based in UK. The anonymous, borderless and viral nature of the cyberspace has also made it easier for bullying and harassment. Based on the latest findings, an estimated 19% of Ugandan 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 Ugandan 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.The latest 2015 survey results showed that Ugandan youth are gaining digital resilience and are 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.

As Ugandans 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 behaviour 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. Ugandans 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 in Uganda 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. Ugandan youth should also be mindful of what they say, do and share online. As future digital citizens, Ugandan children must learn to develop a keen sense of cyber security alertness and possess competent knowledge on cyber threats. Hence, Uganda need to advocate cyber wellness and inspire it young population that accounts for more than 50% of its population to use the Internet in positive ways so that the ‘Pearl of Africa’ 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.

Contador Harrison