Study shows 44 percent of Zimbabwean children exposed to adult content online

Sifelani Tsiko Innovations Editor

A new study shows more and more children aged between 8 and 18 years are seeing adult content on the internet and social media platforms like pornography sparking concerns over online risks and safety of children in the country.

This is coming from findings of a Child Online Safety Survey carried out by the Postal and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe (POTRAZ) in collaboration with the Research Council of Zimbabwe (RCZ) and the Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education which sought to address issues related to safeguarding the youth in the online environment.

“Our children are digital natives and we the adults are digital immigrants. From our study about 44 percent of our children are exposed to sexual content. Children from the most privileged schools are more exposed to sexual content than those from less privileged ones,” said Rumbidzai Panavanhu, a POTRAZ official in a presentation she made on behalf of Prof Maxwell Sandada, the chief investigator.

“Findings are a wakeup call for all of us. Children are adventurous and they try lots of things on the internet. Despite the undeniable benefits of Internet access, the survey also identified harms that children were exposed to. The survey revealed that the main threat to Zimbabwean children online was exposure to sexual content, either intentionally or inadvertently.”

Researchers said a considerable 44 percent admitted that they had seen sexual content online at least once, whether messages, images, or videos.

Exposure to content instigating hate and violence was prevalent. Exposure to content instigating hate against certain people of groups (e.g. tribes, races, religion etc.), violence, fake news, consumption of drugs and other illicit substances, and information about committing suicide was also prevalent.

Furthermore, a considerable 13% of children reported that they had experienced cyber-bullying at least once, the researchers found.

The RCZ and POTRAZ are collaborating to promote impactful research and innovation to address national challenges and help the country attain its National Development Strategy 1 goals.

The growing use of the Internet locally and globally has brought immense benefits but also new threats and risks for children.

The 2024 Online Safety Survey sought to collect data that would enhance the understanding of Zimbabwean children’s use of the Internet, the opportunities presented to them online, the risks and harms they encounter and the different strategies to mitigate these risks.

Panavanhu said the researchers used a mixed-method approach for the survey, integrating quantitative and qualitative techniques.

“The survey targeted children aged between 8 and 18 years, as well as parents and guardians. It adopted a school-based approach to collect data from children, in partnership with the Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education,” she said.

A total of 3 311 respondents were successfully surveyed, comprising 2 780 children and 531 parents and guardians. Among the 2 780 children interviewed, 55 percent were girls, while 45 percent were boys selected from 60 schools in 32 districts, across all 10 provinces of Zimbabwe.

According to the survey, at the national level, the proportion of children who had used the Internet aged between 8 to 18 years, within the three months reference period, was 52 percent while the proportion of children who had used the Internet at least once in their lives, regardless of the timeframe was higher at 94,4 percent.

The average age of initial Internet use was 10 years, and this age increased as the school’s economic status decreased, researchers said.

“Early Internet use among children is attributable to the COVID-19 pandemic, the introduction of e-learning as well as the Continuous Assessment Learning Activities (CALA) framework which was implemented in the education system from 2022 to 2024,” Panavanhu said.

“Frequency of Internet Use was high as 58% of children who used the Internet within the three months reference period, reported that they did so frequently, that is, every day or every other day.”

Children cited several barriers to Internet access and use and these included network availability, parental restrictions, slow Internet connectivity, high cost of data, cost of devices, and power challenges

The survey revealed that mobile phones were the primary device used to access the Internet by children in Zimbabwe, superseding laptops, and desktops amongst other devices.

About 44 percent of the children reported that mobile phones were their primary gadgets for accessing the Internet; laptops and desktops accounted for 27% and 17%, respectively.

Other cited devices included game consoles and connected/smart TVs amongst others.

The survey revealed that social media was very popular amongst children, with an overall adoption rate of 93%.

Overall, WhatsApp stood out as the predominant social networking platform used by children. Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Tik Tok and X (formerly Twitter) were also popular.

At least 75% of children who used social media platforms confirmed that they used their own profiles and not someone`s profile (e.g. a parent`s, sibling`s etc.).

“At the regulatory level, as POTRAZ, we are doing something about this. We are worried about the safety of our children online. We will make sure that these illicit sites are out of reach. We are supposed to use the internet productively,” said Dr Gift Kallisto Machengete, director general of POTRAZ.

“The sites are going to be out of reach so that we control the content. We will be taking action as per the Data Protection Act. We now have the technology to hunt for those who use pseudo names peddling sexual content, cyberbullying and hate speech.

“We want to put a stop on hate speech and cyberbullying.”

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