South African web usage has surged dramatically from about 5% of the population in 2005, to about 10% in 2007. Of course, with increased usage come issues that South Africa Internet users should be aware of. The Internet is a perfect place for people to bully others, a phenomenon that has spread worldwide.
Gossiping, rumour-spreading as it were, is a common and socially acceptable practice world-wide. All kinds of media, from gossip columns to television programs offer it as a way to learn about other people. But never has gossip been more personal and easily to spread than through the Internet.
"The Internet is conducive to gossip because it can be done under a pseudonym or anonymously," says Dennis Armstrong, Webmail International director.
Online bullying has resulted in some tragedies in the US over recent months with a 12-year-old girl committing suicide over a case of cyber-bullying that turned out to be a friend's mother posing as a teenage boy supposedly interested in the girl.
Cyber-bullying is also prevalent at college level with a new website call juicycampus.com which encourages students to post gossip online. Students have suffered at the hands of each other on juicygossip.com to the point where some fear that the information shared online about their college exploits may prevent them from getting a job.
A recent study has shown that about 32% of school children in the US felt they had been bullied online.
Armstrong adds: "The possibility of this kind of thing happening in South Africa is real. Already, there have been cases of cyber-bullying in South Africa. Kids see the internet as an essential part of their lives both as learners and as a base for social interaction."
Unfortunately, like a playground, interaction on the net needs to be monitored by mature adults. Learners and students are able to get out of hand on the internet because there is little if any supervision at all.
Websites that allow personal information to be accessed by others, sms websites and emailing are likely sources of bullying, Armstrong says.
"Even with precautionary policing structures put in place, the rate of bullying can be high. What these bullies fail to remember is that they are traceable. Technology allows us to track the insults right to the computer they were typed on.
Offenders may be able to commit slander anonymously, but all it takes is to report the case to the website managers for it to be traced.
Unfortunately, cyber-bullying is here to stay, Armstrong adds
For those who would rather avoid instances of cyber-bullying, the best bet is to keep personal information off-line or barred from public access. Armstrong advises: "Keeping a private email address for private or work relations can help protect you from sinister activity. Use discretion when giving out personal detail, even photos as this may be another way you could be targeted."