COVID-19, child protection and social media: We have to be responsible

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Social media refers to websites and applications that are designed to allow people to share content quickly and efficiently, and in real-time. Platforms answering to this description include, Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram and others. These platforms can be put to many uses such as marketing, information sharing, updating people about one’s progress in life. What one uses social media platforms for really depends on what they want to communicate and for what purpose. The most common and accessible social media platform is WhatsApp; this can be accessed by anyone with a basic smartphone. WhatsApp will form the focus of this discussion.

I have observed that WhatsApp can be a very useful tool for real-time communication. It can be used to educate the populace on important issues. Organisations, families, professional bodies form WhatsApp groups and use them to keep in touch and share relevant communication. I have seen WhatsApp groups used to co-ordinate activities by sparsely situated players and I have seen WhatsApp groups used to manage crises. I have also been happy to see WhatsApp used to promote child protection, HIV/Aids treatment adherence and for campaigns against gender-based violence. I have, however, been gravely concerned to see WhatsApp being used to circulate harmful information and unacceptable graphic material.

Almost every adult in every household has a phone and most are on WhatsApp. Children also have phones and are on WhatsApp. Most parents and caregivers don’t monitor what their children receive on WhatsApp, yet phones have replaced televisions for our children and some of the graphic material that we receive on the various groups that we are on end up in our children’s phones. Most people just forward information, video voice notes without thinking of the impact the shared piece of information might have.

A case in point is the information that has child abuse connotations and information on public health. These are topical issues for Zimbabwe today. A few weeks ago, I received from a certain group that I am on a video of private parts of a very traumatised child. As is typical with videos shared on WhatsApp, this video went viral. The video shows the private parts of an apparently sexually abused girl child on what looks like a hospital bed.

Some gloved hand is trying to examine her and each time the hand touches her, the child screams in agony. The pain in the child’s voice left a mark on my mind although I could not watch the video to completion. The video was accompanied by an allegation that she had been raped by her mother’s boyfriend. Someone must have thought by recording this video and circulating it they were fighting child sexual abuse.

I am not sure, however, if this is a very effective and harmless way of fighting child abuse. In the first place, recording the video completely takes away the child’s right to privacy and confidentiality. Granted, the child’s face is not shown on the video, but what we are being shown are her privates, which should remain private. The child was obviously not in a position to give any consent to have any part of her body recorded and circulated on WhatsApp, but someone just took the liberty to do so. I am not going to talk about the heartlessness of recording such pain and circulating it, I will accept we are different. I, however, have no apology in stating that in this case WhatsApp became a tool for secondary trauma to the child and she might find it difficult to recover from the double trauma. This is one of the examples where WhatsApp has been used to re-traumatise survivors, particularly children, of violence and this practice does not look set to stop.

Now to the second issue of public health, Zimbabwe has joined the world in being one of the countries facing COVID-19 and WhatsApp has again become a vehicle for transmitting information. I do concede, the platform has been used to circulate a lot of useful information on the virus and communities have benefited from the information. The challenge has been the use of WhatsApp to circulate unverified information at best and outright untrue information at worst.

Everyone has become an expert on the virus and everyone wants to educate people. My concern is how much of the information we are circulating finds itself influencing our behaviour positively. For instance, how many of us have handwashing points at our house entrances as a way of ensuring no one enters our house without washing their hands? How many of us are staying home as advised by the experts? My second concern is the harm done by the alarmist messages that find themselves on WhatsApp groups.

I have seen messages that try to confine the virus to a particular ethnic group, thereby promoting stigma and discrimination. Some messages purport to contain recipes for concoctions that supposedly cure the virus and others, supported by verses from the Bible, allege that the virus is a form of punishment from God! Some have had the audacity to craft and circulate jokes about the virus. I have read, I have listened, I have watched and I have lamented the fact that our fellow humans are dying in thousands, we are faced by a threat to human existence and all we can do is pretend to be experts instead of supporting experts! Forwarding every joke and every piece of information that you come across about something as serious as COVID-19 does not reflect a serious perception of personal danger. It does not reflect that we are seriously thinking about the fact that we can get infected neither does it indicate a serious introspection about how we can support those battling the virus.

The tragedy of such irresponsible use of WhatsApp is that an opportunity to use the platform constructively and to make a real difference is lost as we pass time by overloading inboxes with unverified and at times offensive information. WhatsApp, because of its accessibility has potential to reach everyone across the divide. It, therefore, can be a very useful tool. Used wrongly or irresponsibly it can cause fear and despondency and it can destroy hope and confidence. It can also fuel stigma and discrimination and yet used responsibly it can also promote love, care and support.

We have to make a choice on how we are going to use the platform, but in making that choice, let’s keep in mind there are people out there who have tested positive for the virus and have had to go into isolation. They need messages of hope. There are brave men and women who are fighting to save the lives of those who are ill. They need our encouragement and support. When someone is affected by an illness that requires them to be quarantined, they lose a very important part of the healing process, community and family support, they will battle alone without the hugs and warmth of family. With social media, particularly WhatsApp, they don’t have to. WhatsApp is one platform that can be used to encourage communities and families to support those in isolation. It can also be used to reach those in quarantine without those reaching out putting themselves at risk. It can be a way of supporting those in isolation to keep in touch, share their thoughts, fears and hopes.

Have we ever thought about how we can use WhatsApp to serenade our frontline healthcare workers instead of spreading rumours? The 21-day lockdown might mean more time on our hands and therefore more time on WhatsApp, let’s use it constructively, let’s desist from causing more harm than good by indiscrimately forwarding everything that comes to our inbox.

As I conclude this article I urge everyone to pause and reflect on what one can personally do to reduce harm as our nation and the world face this pandemic. Next time we have unverified information on the virus, let’s think before we press the send button. Let’s generate personal messages of hope, love, care and support and circulate those instead. Let’s use WhatsApp to support children and portray them as heroes who are resilient. Let’s support our communities to build and nurture their own resilience as they try to prevent and survive this epidemic. We have to take responsibility and make WhatsApp work for us.

We will beat this!

 Sibusisiwe Marunda is the REPSSI Zimbabwe country director. She writes in her personal capacity.