Nelson Mandela University: South Africans spend more time online than global average

Cybersecurity researcher Professor Kerry-Lynn Thomson in the School of ICT at Mandela University, shared groundbreaking findings at her inaugural lecture Cybersecurity – Reducing the Attack Surface, held at the University last year.

Among them: South Africans are spending, on average – three more hours online per day – than the global average.

All this screen time is not exclusive to the younger generation. Older people were included in Professor Thomson’s research demographic. In the age group, 16 to 64 years, the global average is six hours spent online per day, while South Africans spend, on average, a minimum of ten hours per day,” said the professor.

“This includes watching television, social media (3,5 hours), music streaming and gaming, with 25 million South Africans being active social media users. WhatsApp, YouTube, Instagram and Facebook are the most popular platforms in South Africa.”

“In South Africa, with a population of 59.67 million, 64% have access to the internet,” said Professor Thomson. Moving further afield, there are 7.73 billion people on the planet, and 4.66 billion of them are global internet users. Almost 60% of the world’s population has internet access. Most organisations rely on internet connectivity.

As any researcher knows, the devil is in the detail. The lowest percentage internet usage of the population in the world can be found in Eastern Africa, at 24%, with the highest percentage in Northern Europe, at 96% of the population. With so many people connected to the internet, it stands to reason there are loads of devices out there.

“Currently there are 21.5 billion devices connected to the internet,” the professor explained. “This is expected to jump to 125 billion devices by 2030. It is estimated that concepts such as the Internet of Things (IoT) will facilitate the connections of over 125 billion ‘things’ by the year 2030.”

Overwhelming numbers by anyone’s standards. What does this increased uptake mean? How will this impact our world, whether on an individual, community, national or international level?

Professor Thomson cautioned, as people and devices are becoming increasingly interconnected, and more data is being shared, the question is – are we doing so securely? Her two main concerns: how companies are using personal data and what is real, versus what is fake on the internet.

“On the individual level, one of the biggest dangers is the perception ‘it’s not going to happen to me’. With WhatsApp, email and social media, people put themselves out there. They are less aware of how they are sharing information, even something like completing a Facebook quiz.”

Of the need for Cybersecurity at governmental level, she cautioned, “This point is not specific to any particular government. Where there is policy, the danger is it’s there as a token, but doesn’t translate to anything on the ground.”

The professor hopes to instill a Cybersecurity culture in organisations and a Cybersecurity conscious society. The new knowledge she is generating, is showing the importance of using people as part of Cybersecurity defence. According to McAfee, Cybercrime rose 121% in 2020, compared to 2019.

Professor Thomson likens this to a Cybercrime pandemic. Employees are not the only people going online. Children, teenagers and retirees are included. “We need to know that when we go online we are constantly being profiled,” she cautioned.

The Cybersecurity researcher is constantly upgrading her knowledge base. Besides extensive reading and research, she speaks to people in different industries to find out what foundation they require.

Besides being a leader in Cybersecurity, Professor Thomson is a colleague, mom, wife and friend. With so many demands on her time – in South Africa and abroad – how does she manage? Supportive colleagues and family are a bonus. “Colleagues at the University are super supportive,” she confides. “They give me room to explore things and to take initiative.”

“I guess I was born that way,” the professor shared, of her ‘busyness’ from an early age. As head girl at primary and senior school at Riebeeck Girls College in Uitenhage, and Eastern Cape Matric of the Year in 1998, she couldn’t have settled for less than what she was capable of.

Her early leadership lesson was learning to delegate. “I soon discovered that I couldn’t do everything myself! My mom was my sounding board and still is.”

“A career guidance counselor recommended that I not do IT. Only because they saw me as a people person. In those days they saw IT as about coding and being behind a computer – very different then.”

Accepted to study pharmacy at the University, the plan was to follow in the footsteps of her pharmacist dad. Destiny intervened when she was awarded a bursary to study at the then Port Elizabeth Technikon. The matriculant changed to IT, based on the guidance of the faculty officer at the time.

The bright student reckoned if things didn’t work out, she could switch to pharmacy. “I loved IT,” declared the professor, “I was enthralled by IT’s changing nature.”

Two decades later, academic life suits her. Among many professional highlights was presenting at a conference in Johannesburg as a BTech student and traveling to Athens, Greece as a Masters student.

In 2007 Thomson joined the staff at the School of IT at Nelson Mandela University. Burning the midnight oil is not uncommon with her drive for excellence. Her longest stint was preparing for a Tetra course until dawn. She presented the six-month course to police officers in preparation for the Soccer World Cup.

Travel is a vocational perk. The professor is a roller coaster enthusiast – ‘risk taking in a controlled environment’. Her husband provides a sanctuary in a sea of constant change. Their four-year-old son has an inquiring mind and ‘loves taking things apart’.

Our world unraveled during the pandemic. Industry experts like Professor Thomson are guiding our readiness to handle the New Normal.