Picture: Pexels/cottonbro
Picture: Pexels/cottonbro

We’re living in a period with so many advantages over previous eras: greater access to effective health care, vaccinations against disease, more accessible education and broader transport and trade networks. There is no question that technology, the internet and social media have improved our lives, but they come with significant risks.

In an era that is full of hazards, how do we protect our young people from cyberharm? This was the focus of a recent Sunday Times GenNext virtual conversation, in partnership with Yellowwood and Gautrain, and moderated by Rianette Leibowitz, a digital parenting author and speaker who has long focused on raising awareness of cybersafety, cyberwellness and cyberbullying.

With screen time at a record high, young people are more vulnerable to cyberthreats and social media perceptions than ever before. In this environment, how do brands and marketers carve out a safe space to reach younger generations in a digital world without compromising their safety and security?

There are numerous cyberthreats facing young people today, said Paul Esterhuizen, CEO of Safer Internet SA. Arguably the biggest threat is to their self-esteem. Advertising to children can be harmful unless marketers and brands realise the extent to which they can negatively influence this market. The Protection of Personal Information Act (Popi Act) – due to come into effect in July – will help to protect the privacy of younger audiences, but its efficacy will rely on sufficient policing.

Mayke Huijbregts, chief of child protection at Unicef, said factors such as age, social environment and self-esteem play into whether a child is potentially a victim or a perpetrator. Manipulation and grooming typically happen to younger children. Older youth tend to be more digitally savvy but can still be subject to cyberbullying – or be perpetrators of cyberbullying. Younger children, in particular, need to be carefully guided in the digital world.

Sphelele Mjadu, senior public relations manager at Unilever, said marketers have a greater responsibility than ever before in terms of how they communicate to young people. Self-esteem is critically important if young people are to realise their life goals. Societal issues around beauty standards have a huge impact on young audiences, which is something that Unilever is very cognisant of. Mjadu said brands need to help young people to realise their full potential by growing their self-esteem and helping them to have a positive body image. Social media doesn’t portray people’s real lives – most people use filters when they’re taking selfies, for example. Brands need to portray real people and focus on consistent and very deliberate communications.

The Sunday Times GenNext, now in its 17th year, is the leading annual brand preference and consumer behaviour research on the youth. The GenNext youth survey provides meaningful insights into the minds of SA youth. From this year, all youth capabilities, including the annually anticipated 2021 Sunday Times GenNext youth survey, will be enhanced by the strategic might of Yellowwood.

The big take-out:

Now more than ever before, brands need to be cognisant of marketing responsible messages to young people.


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