14ymedio, Luz Escobar, Havana, 1 February 2018 — “Señora, can you help me get a recharge?” asks the little voice of a girl clutching a pair of convertible pesos in her hands. The customer goes to Telecommunications Company of Cuba (ETECSA) to fulfill the request and the girl, thanks to the women’s help, is happy to chat on Facebook from a Wi-Fi zone and post photos on Instagram, outside the control of her parents.
The number of minors going onto social networks in Cuba is increasing. There are no official statistics on the number of children using these platforms, but it is enough to observe one of the wireless navigation zones installed in squares and parks to confirm the constant presence of little kids attached to cellphones or tablets.
ETECSA regulations require customers using the internet service in wifi zones to be over 18. In addition, it does not sell recharges to children and in its navigation rooms users under 12 must be in the company of an adult.
However, the phenomenon of children using social networks without surveillance has grown in tandem with the growth of connectivity on the Island. Across the country there are 370 public sites for wireless Internet access and more than 630 navigation rooms, according to information offered by the Communications Minister, Maimir Mesa, to the deputies of the National Assembly in July 2017.
Many children connect in the company of friends, classmates from school or alone. They can access the network using an adult browsing account or buy an access card good for a few hours, or get on with the help of an adult. Once inside the vast digital territory they are exposed to more dangers than they can imagine.
Karolina is 15 and publishes on her Facebook wall every day. She opened the account by claiming an age she has not yet reached and her profile photo shows her in short shorts with a blouse that reveals her entire abdoman. On her wall other users have put shameless and lusty emoticons.
The young woman, who lives in the city of Camagüey, enters the networks through a domestic connection assigned to her father, a specialist in a hospital in the area. “When I come home from work, she is hooked up to the computer and sometimes she eats with the plate in her hand so as not to be separated from the screen,” says her mother.
The computer does not have any parental control filter enabled and the teenager spends most of her time on Facebook chat. “Sometimes I talk to my friends and sometimes I talk to someone who shows up,” she tells 14ymedio. She can’t say how old the unknown people are she exchanges greetings with, although she infers that they are about her age.
One of the dangers minors are exposed to on-line is so-called grooming, which consists of an adult posing as a minor to interact with children. The perpetrator seeks to win the friendship of the child for his benefit, asking her to send pictures with nudity and, in the worst case, it may end with a sexual assault if the adult manages to contact the victim in person.
The inexperience of Cuban Internet users, who for years remained oblivious to the existence of the Internet, the lack of a public debate on these dangers and the moral relaxation that runs through Cuban society aggravate the fragility of these children before virtual predators.
Services such as Facebook and Twitter are subject to the law for the protection of children’s privacy (COPPA), which governs companies based in the United States. The rule prevents a minor from having either an email address or a social network profile, but the ways to circumvent the obstacle are many.
Neither of her parents reviewed what Karolina published on social networks and both were surprised when a neighbor commented on what was going on. The teenager had uploaded photos of herself in poses of different types and had published intimate details about her life and family. In addition, she made public her personal address and landline number.
“We almost had a heart attack,” says her father the doctor. A reprimand was the answer, but the teenager continues to post on her wall. “What can we do about it if she entertains herself there?” the mother justifies.
“There is no practice in using parental controls and in general in Cuba there is a lot of permissiveness with children, who access any type of digital content,” says Amaury Velázquez, a designer and developer of web applications. The professional has worked in the programming of several digital tools focused on the youngest users.
“They don’t only see it on the Internet, but most of the children watch sex scenes in the movies their parents are watching without checking that there is a child in front of them. They are aware of the adult stories of soap operas and the sex jokes that are made in front of them,” says the computer scientist.
Experts warn that children under 14 should not have social networks and several child psychologists consulted by this newspaper even suggest that they should not have access to a mobile phone before that age. “Not even a cell phone without a fixed line, because then they use Zapya to exchange content,” adds a specialist in the field consulted by 14ymedio and who preferred anonymity.
The popular application is used by many Cuban children and teenagers to share photos, songs and videos via Bluetooth. “I have treated several children with symptoms of stress because they have been victims of ridicule from their classmates because of this,’ adds the psychologist. “One teenager I treated had terrible anxiety over a half-naked photo of her that was shared in Zapya.”
Twelve-year-old Neily lied when she opened a Facebook account and said she was born in 1999 although her profile picture betrays her as being younger. In her preferences she marked that she is interested in trap music, is a fan of Bad Bunny and shares selfies in which she throws a kiss to the camera with her lips painted intensely red.
“When there are temporary cards to recharge an hour it is better because I can ask anyone in the line to buy me one and then I can surf,” the young woman explains to a friend as she waits for a new customer to arrive at the ETECSA office in the centrally located Focsa building. This Tuesday Neily went out with several friends after school, intending to “go for the wifi,” the new preferred destination for children this age.
The girl boasts to her friends that she has connected with her musical idol Bad Bunny on Facebook and says he said hello to her: “Thank you very much, Bunny” was the brief message she received. It does not occur to her that maybe it was not her favorite singer who was writing to her. And her parents, they know nothing about it.
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