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Kids In Crisis – How COVID-19 Is Changing Our Children Forever

Tying The Tourniquet

Academically, socially, mentally and emotionally, the fallout from the Coronavirus pandemic could haunt our children for the rest of their lives.

It is almost impossible to gauge the full effect on our children’s mental health and wellbeing that the Coronavirus pandemic and resultant extended lockdown is having.

But there is one thing we absolutely know for sure:

The impact is significant.

Some children, young people and teachers will have relatives or friends who died during lockdown – either from coronavirus or other illnesses. Because of the restrictions in place, they will likely not have been with them in their last hours, or been able to say a proper goodbye at a funeral.

Others might have had, or still have, friends or relatives who are ill in hospital, or at risk of contracting the virus because they work on the front line in healthcare.

Some will have parents who have lost their jobs during the economic shutdown. Many won’t have been able to see friends or grandparents for long periods.

These are all forms of loss, and most children will be grieving in one way or another for a long while to come.

On top of this, our children also have to cope with an even bigger threat to their mental health.

The forced physical separation from people outside our immediate families has prompted most of us to seek solace in the only other form of connection available to us – online. While this has proved wonderful in so many ways, keeping families and loved ones connected via Zoom and other social and collaboration platforms, it has also meant we’re spending far more time than usual in cyberspace.

This has created a whole new range of problems that have nothing, and yet everything, to do with the lockdown.

We recently received a letter from my daughter’s school (included at the end of this article) which highlighted an insidious side effect of the (almost unavoidable) increase in the use of cell phones, tablets and laptops during the extended lockdown period…


It seems incomprehensible to me that, at a time when teachers were willingly embracing an entirely new way of teaching – using their own time, money and resources, I might add – that a group of learners saw fit to defame, criticise and generally bully them online via a variety of social media platforms and unofficial WhatsApp groups.

This cowardly and reprehensible behaviour wasn’t only directed at teachers but to some learners as well.

As the school so rightly points out, “Being isolated seems to have driven them to use electronic platforms, other than as channels created to communicate with staff, to voice their frustrations, fears and concerns. Social media platforms of this nature do not leave room for crucial and constructive conversation, and resorting to blunt defamation of character of staff, learners and the school, comes at the expense of emotional well-being and effective academic momentum.”

As shocking, unsettling and deeply disturbing as it was to receive this letter, I know this type of incident is not unique to my daughter’s school.

Far, far from it.

Cyberbullying, always an ever-present danger in an increasingly online world, is raging almost out of control in our pandemic-altered planet.

So, What Is Cyberbullying?

Cyberbullying takes place online and, although it isn’t physical, it can still cause immense harm to our mental health. Examples include:

  • Sending unwanted sexual messages or images to people.
  • Sending cruel, harsh or humiliating messages to someone.
  • Making abusive comments about someone. This includes homophobic, racist, transphobic or sexist remarks.
  • Forwarding embarrassing videos or photos to people, or posting them online.

“Cyber bullies can hide behind a mask of anonymity online, and do not need direct physical access to their victims to do unimaginable harm.”  Anna Marcia Chavez

South Africa has some very worrying cyberbullying statistics:

  • We have the fourth-highest rate of cyberbullying in the world.
  • One in five South African teens has experienced cyberbullying first-hand
  • 84% of SA teens know someone who has been a victim of cyberbullying.
  • More than 60% of children South Africa agreed that cyberbullying is worse than face-to-face bullying.

The Bogus “Freedom Of Speech” Argument

Cyberbullies seem to think that they’re allowed to say whatever they like online because they’re protected by both a screen and our Constitution.

This is their first mistake.

Social media are public platforms. Everyone using them has the right not to be defamed by another person or be subjected to hate speech.

It is true that in South Africa, the law states everyone has the right to freedom of expression in terms of Section 16 of our Constitution.

BUT, and this is the kicker, this right can be, and is, limited.

So, when does freedom of speech bleed into defamation territory?

To successfully claim that something you said or wrote wasn’t defamatory, you have to prove one of the following: it’s the truth, it’s in the public interest, or it’s fair comment. None of these, however, is a blanket defence that excludes all liability.

The opinion expressed must be based on true facts and it must be in the public interest in order for it to be deemed a protected opinion. Even then, there is a fine line between a protected opinion and merely defaming someone.

What To Do When Someone Defames You

If someone defames you, you have legal grounds for an action for damages for defamation. Even repeating a defamatory statement made by someone else may be considered as defamation. An example of this would be if you are tagged in a defamatory statement on Facebook, or share, like or comment on a defamatory post.

You can apply to court for an interdict to force the defamer to remove all the posts about you, and to refrain from posting about you in future. You can also claim legal costs from them.

You can even apply for a protection order in terms of the Protection of Harassment Act, which makes it a criminal offence for the defamer to defame you again.

What About Hate Speech?

When it comes to hate speech, the law is clear: Hate speech is a criminal offence. There are very few defences, and your right to freedom of expression is certainly limited in this case.

If you see hate speech on Social Media, even if it’s not directed at you personally, you can lay a complaint at the South African Human Rights Commission.

The Prevention and Combating of Hate Crime and Hate Speech Bill, which clamps down on all forms or hate speech, has been drafted and is now at Parliament for processing. Its impact will soon be a reality for all those who persist in crossing the line.

The Eternal Nature Of Your Social Media Footprint

But even if the moral and legal implications of cyberbullying don’t sway the cyberbullies out there, perhaps this will:

What you say on social media never completely goes away.


Yes, life is full of mistakes.

When we, as parents, were growing up, we all made errors of judgement at some point. Some of us more so than others! The main difference, however, between our childhood and our children’s, is that we didn’t live it on social media.

When so much of our lives is shared online, our digital footprint isn’t easy to erase. What you put on social media becomes a virtual CV of your character. Everyone from potential employers to university and scholarship selection panels will check you out online before proceeding with your application.

What Can We Do?

Cyberbullying is one of the most dangerous side-effects of the Covid-19 lockdown, and a serious threat to our teens. Its effects are both traumatic and long-lasting.

As parents, we have to guide our teenagers and show them what is and isn’t acceptable behaviour. If we fail in this responsibility, the effects could be catastrophic. Children who fall victim to cyberbullies experience a wide range of negative effects, including sadness, depression, anxiety, anger, shame, fear, frustration, low self-esteem, an inability to trust others, withdrawal, avoidance of social relationships, poor academic performance, bullying others, and, in extreme cases, suicide.

We also have to work with teachers when cyberbullying is initiated by other children, and witnesses should be urged to speak up to help those too afraid to help themselves.

These are unsettling, frightening and potentially damaging times for our children. We must do everything we can to protect them.


Academically, socially, mentally and emotionally, the fallout from the Coronavirus pandemic could haunt our children for the rest of their lives.

It is almost impossible to gauge the full effect on our children’s mental health and wellbeing that the Coronavirus pandemic and resultant extended lockdown is having.

But there is one thing we absolutely know for sure:

The impact is significant.