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The real culprits in the MXit storm

The call last week by the mobile instant messaging service MXit for the media to stop misrepresenting its role in disappearances of teenagers highlights ignorance about technology among both parents and the media. ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK unravels the MXit concept, the numbers behind MXit, and the culpability of parents and the media amid the sensational reporting.

Monday, 3 August 2009 will always be remembered by Aslam and Rushida Omar as the day their 14-year-old daughter disappeared. For several media houses, however, it may well come to represent the day they regret using the term ‚MXit girl‚ or ‚MXit teen‚ in headlines.

Those labels for the missing girl, Nabeela Omar, summed up the trial by media that laid the guilt for the disappearance at the door of MXit, South Africa’s most successful social network.MXit is an instant messaging (IM) service that runs on almost any current cellphone, and allows text messages to be sent at a tiny fraction of the cost of SMS. The service claims close to 10-million South Africans users, and around 14-million worldwide.

The concept and the numbers

The concept behind MXit is deceptively simple: once you’ve downloaded a small software application, you are able to invite friends to be your ‚Contacts‚ , create private chat rooms and exchange brief text messages. The messages are carried over a data connection created by the MXit software, meaning it bypasses the SMS and voice channels used by the phone. The data channel incurs network fees at a rate of up to R2 a Megabyte. A short text message typically comprises less than two hundredths of a Megabyte, meaning that sending a typical MXit message costs less than 1c.

Despite this massive benefit and its compelling value proposition, its popularity is confined almost entirely to the youth market, with school children the core user base.

There are around 34-million cellphone users in South Africa (see out of a population of about 48-million. If as many as half of these cellphone users are teenagers, it can be argued that at least half of all teenagers in South Africa are using the service.

This means that use of MXit is as useful an identifying characteristic for individuals as use of the cellphone itself. And this is where the media has failed itself, has failed in its duty of responsible reporting, and has failed parents of at-risk children.

Of course, there is also the culpability of parents themselves to consider, but the media’s role is far more direct.

The evidence

Take this quote from The Star’s first report on Nabeela’s disappearance: ‚It is believed that she may have struck up a relationship with a man she met on MXit‚ . Or this evidence from The Times: ‚Omar said on talking to Nabeela’s friends, it emerged that she had contact with some of them on MXit during Monday afternoon.‚ The report adds, in the very next sentence: ‚She also had had brief telephone contact with her family.‚

Yet, astonishingly, at no stage is she referred to as the ‚cellphone girl‚ or is the blame laid at the feet of Vodacom or MTN, the networks that make most phone calls in South Africa possible.

Of course, ‚cellphone girl‚ doesn’t have a ring to it, and this is where both reporters and sub-editors ‚ who edit articles and write the headlines under which they appear ‚ are shown to be pursuing a sensationalist agenda rather than trying to get to the bottom of a news story. In this process, they impede the practical steps needed to enhance the safety of children in society.

Nabeela returned home safely two days later, dropped off near her parents’ home by “the occupants of an unidentified car””, according to The Times. Strangely, the headline didn’t make any reference to a “”car gir””, once again preferring “”Mxit teen”” (and, incorrectly, used a lower case ‘x’).

MXit created much mirth among seasoned IT journalists ‚ who see poor reporting of technology matters by mainstream journalists almost daily ‚ when it issued a statement entitled ‚MXit Says No to Poor Journalism!‚

The company said it was ‚concerned about the ongoing misleading and inaccurate use of its name in media reports across all media platforms, including television, print and online‚ . It added: ‚MXit is currently consulting its lawyers to determine whether the most recent example is a breach of the South African Press Code, or indeed if it amounts to defamation.‚

It’s seldom a good idea to take on the media for sloppy reporting, as they always have the last word, but in this case MXit had a powerful point. As it said in its statement: ‚there is no proof that a conversation with an unknown person on MXit led to the girl’s disappearance‚ .

Said Juan du Toit, international marketing manager for MXit: ‚We cannot condone this behaviour or attack on our brand and are simply calling on the media to be accurate in their reporting and headlining of stories. MXit is not the problem. We offer a system that allows people to communicate at a fraction of the cost of sending SMS or voice calls. Our users send approximately 35 000 messages per second during peak times and the MXit community visits our platform more than 20 million times a day. Even if it does emerge that she accepted a friend request from a stranger, it is not fair to condemn a technology of close to 15 million users for bad choices made by one user.‚

Du Toit pointed to an even more spurious connection: ‚While eTV was covering the missing girl story during its newscast at 7pm on Wednesday, they flashed a web address for a European teen pornography site during the newscaster’s report. This is simply unacceptable. There is no connection between MXit and these sites and we are horrified that prime time news would even show a web address of this nature. Our philosophy is firm ‚ we never promote or distribute any content that reflects any political, religious or pornographic view and even restrict advertising from popular consumer magazines that could be seen as even slightly ‚risky’. ‚

The parent blame

The other side of the blame coin shows the face of the parent.

It is generally understood by educationists and technology developers that misuse of a technology by children says far more about the children and their home, social or school environment than it does about the technology itself. If a child chooses to run off with a complete stranger, it is irrelevant where she met that stranger. Sandton City is not blamed if a girl disappears a few days after being chatted up by a man she met in the Food Court. The girl’s own circumstances are examined in this case.

The same must apply to the use of technology. As compelling as the chat rooms may be, their role is generally confined to giving a child an avenue through which to deal with issues that already exist.

However, this does not mean an innocent, well-adjusted child from a solid family background will never fall victim to a smooth-talking villain. And this is where additional parental responsibility enters the picture: a responsibility to understand the technology their children may be using.

In the case of the Omars, blaming MXIt seemed to be a knee-jerk reaction to explaining why their daughter would go off with a stranger. They could as easily have blamed ‚involvement with the wrong crowd‚ , ‚hanging out at the wrong place‚ , ‚failure of the school to protect‚ or even ‚the cellphone networks for failing to monitor her calls‚ . But MXit is an easy target, given that the media already believes it is the ultimate teen den of iniquity. Before long, Facebook or even Twitter will play this role for the media too.

In many cases, children are using online, chat or messaging services that are entirely inappropriate to their age groups or to their online experience. For example, anecdotal evidence suggests that a high proportion of Johannesburg schoolchildren aged from 10-12 are using Facebook, but lying about their ages to get round the network’s age restriction of no under-13s. And, in most cases, they are doing this with the full knowledge of their parents, who prefer to wash their hands of responsibility.

In the case of MXit, parents are often caught wrongfooted by an incident involving a child because they claimed it was ‚too complicated‚ for them to use.

The real issue is that most parents find it too time-consuming to learn how to use.

Cyber bullying

On Facebook, issues like cyber bullying and offensive content have come back to haunt many a parent who allowed ‚complicated‚ to override ‚responsible‚ .

The likes of MXit do have a responsibility to educate parents, and it is a role that is evolving all the time.

‚Although we understand that technology is sometimes difficult for parents to understand, we believe that they need to take responsibility for teaching their teenagers how to engage responsibly on all communications platform,‚ says Du Toit. ‚We have a chat room blocking feature that allows parents to shut down the chat room capability if they believe their teens are interacting inappropriately.‚

He points out that numerous parents have downloaded the MXit application so that they understand the technology and therefore able to appropriately advise and guide their teenagers.

‚Knowledge is power,‚ says Du Toit. ‚It is only when you understand something completely that you are able to use it to your advantage, and we urge parents to take the time to understand any social networking platform that their teens use.‚

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