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Time for digital citizenship education in Nigeria

“Local Attorney’s Identity Stolen, Used To Scam Women Online,” “Hacked home devices caused massive Internet outage,” “A Nude Snapchat Video and Cyber-bullying Lead to Teen’s Suicide,” “Nigerian e-mail sting leads to theft of millions from companies.” These are some of the headlines from around the world about the evil happenings going on in our digital world. The huge benefits of the internet appear to come with safety issues. From problems with wireless networks to unsecure websites, to malevolent persons seeking to cause harm, online risks are posing huge dangers to individuals, businesses and governments. In response, parents, educators, security people, governments and opinion leaders are having conversations around the important, yet frequently ignored topics on privacy, safety, digital citizenship, media literacy and more.

Anyone growing up in the last three or four decades have heard the often repeated cliché, “we live in a technological age.” Originally, the technologies operated largely independent of one another. In the last two decades, however, there has been some sort of technological convergence. We have seen, for instance, the telecommunications, information technology and the media sectors coming together and growing together.

The internet is arguably the best example of technological convergence. And because of it, we now live in a world of influential 24/7 media, where you find all forms of entertainment technologies that can be quickly accessed by billions of people who are connected online, including Nigeria’s 97 million subscribers. This interaction is changing the dynamics of families, schools, communities and even relationships. And it is noteworthy that every country around the world is experiencing in varying degrees the harmful consequences of our connection with digital technologies through cyber attacks, cyber bullying, sexting, online scam, among many others.

Thought leaders around the world know that technology users, especially children, need to be educated about the safe, savvy, ethical use of media and technology. They are in the front line of helping students become competent, critical and literate in all media forms, how the media works, how they are organised, how they produce meaning and how they construct reality.

Educators are also actively instructing their students about the basic elements of digital citizenship, which focuses on appropriate and responsible use of digital media and technology. For example, the idea of digital citizenship helps students to safely navigate the deep recesses of the digital world. It helps them not to plagiarise information on the internet, not to use wrong etiquette in e-mail, text or other online communication, not to harass or bully others, but to respect, educate and protect themselves and others.

In countries in Europe and North America, the lack of instruction in digital citizenship and media literacy education has been said to contribute to public health concerns, resulting in physical and psychological issues such as obesity, bullying, aggression, low self-esteem, depression, negative body image, risky sexual behaviour, substance abuse, among others.

In Nigeria, the biggest problem we have as a result of our interaction with digital technologies is cyber crime. Nigeria is very highly rated globally when it comes to cyber crime, and we have, over the years, sadly cultivated a flourishing ‘cottage industry’ of fraudsters and provided a genuine breeding ground for cyber criminals. Online crimes, which started at the turn of the 21st century as a form of advanced fee scheme in which unsuspecting victims are scammed into parting with their hard earned money, has become more malicious with scammers hijacking people’s personal computers and local hackivists increasingly making attempts to hack government and private institutions’ infrastructures. Last year Nigeria reportedly experienced over 3,500 cyber attacks, with over 70 percent success rate, while losing $450 million to digital fraud, according to the National Information Technology Development Agency (NITDA).

Government, however, is trying to combat this scourge with measures such as the Cyber Crime Act of 2015, which properly defines what cyber crime is, while outlining the legal consequences for those who break the law. The law outlines fines, jail terms and even the death penalty for various offences, including cyber-stalking, cyber-bullying, child pornography, identity theft, and all kinds of hacking, including any system or network that has been designated critical national infrastructure. On its face value, the act looks very impressive, and many opinion leaders have even acknowledged it as the quintessential solution to all our cyber problems. But how do one explain or factor in the fact that cyber fraud attempts in the country have reportedly increased 1,000 times in the first half of 2016, that is, one year since the passing of the Cyber Crime Act. This fight must, therefore, be fought on some other fronts as well.

The act or the law can take care of those adults who are completely formed and set in their criminal ways, but they should not be allowed to encourage or recruit vulnerable young people to join their ranks. This is why an initiative such as digital citizenship must be one of our first lines of defence against the scourge of cyber crimes.

Stakeholders such as education administrators, parents, teachers, students, citizens and governments at all levels should work together to educate the youth about the ramifications of the responsible use of the internet, as well as its intrinsic dangers. This will be a positive step in helping our youths become responsible Nigerian and digital citizens who would use technology appropriately for the benefit of themselves, as well as others.

  • Olayefun, a digital expert, sent in this article from Abuja.