It's the scenario every parent dreads. Up in her bedroom, a teenage girl is chatting away to a new friend on the laptop her parents gave her for her birthday. They assume that she is just talking to school friends, but the boy she is messaging - who has told her he is 16 - is, unbeknown to her, a paedophile in his 30s. After weeks of building her trust, he eventually lures her to a hotel room, where he rapes her.
We might like to hope that this story - the plot of the movie Trust, currently showing in UAE cinemas - is just a far-fetched, Hollywood tale, but the dangers posed to children in the online world are being taken seriously in the Emirates.
The UAE is the first Middle Eastern country to have joined the Virtual Global Taskforce: an international partnership of law enforcement agencies, non-government organisations and industry that aims to help protect children from online child abuse. Represented in the UAE by General Nasser, a Major General in the Ministry of Interior, the VGT is launching a campaign today leading up to the biennial VGT Conference 2012, which is to be hosted in Abu Dhabi in December.
"The VGT is about making the internet a safer place for children," explains Lt Col Faisal Al Shamari, Liaison Officer and Media Co-ordinator with the VGT.
According to Al Shamari, the problem should not be treated lightly.
"The traditional means of thinking that children within the boundaries of their home are safe from any risk is a fake perception. Parents need to know that with internet access their children can be accessed by offenders and criminals. Some might be honest, nice, decent people but you never know who's on the other line of the internet; it could be an offender; it could be a convicted criminal; it could be a psychopath; it could be a decent man or woman or another child. You cannot be sure of the identity of the other people you are communicating with."
The statistics give little comfort.
"Some international statistics show that one out of five children are being attempted to be groomed online for sexual exploitation purposes," says Al Shamari. "This indicates that there is a high risk; it is evolving to become a challenge."
Research carried out closer to home bears this out. The Dubai British School this year carried out a survey of the student body to find out pupils' internet habits and experiences. According to Mark Wood, the school's ICT co-ordinator, the results were startling.
"The results showed a surprising number of year-seven students with Facebook accounts, although Facebook's official policy states that you should not have a Facebook account unless you are 13 years old."
More worryingly, according to Wood, "17 per cent of our secondary students claimed to have met up with someone they had met online. Feedback from teachers suggested that in nearly all cases there was no serious threat mentioned, however, some students shared stories of 'friends of friends' who had experienced difficulties."
It wasn't just stranger danger that was a problem, either, says Wood.
"A high proportion of students admitted to either being bullied online or having bullied someone else online."
The school is determined to educate the children about online risks, with a cyberbullying unit in each year group and a course on e-safety for older students. Crucially, the school insists that educating the children is not enough and holds presentations for parents. According to Wood, parents are often ignorant of the potential problems.
"Our students use Moshi Monsters, Club Penguin, Facebook, etc. The ISPs apply certain filters over here but they only really block out pornographic content. I believe that most parents over here in the UAE think that these filters are sufficient to keep their child safe, when in fact they couldn't be further from the truth."
As with any danger, prevention is better than cure, and the more children who can be encouraged to discuss their online life, the better. Computers in bedrooms make it easier to hide online activity, so keeping them in communal rooms can help. Some parents go further and insist on tracking their children's internet activity through being their friends on Facebook and checking their internet history.
If the worst happens and parents suspect their child has encountered online abuse, they can report it to the VGT on its website. If a child is in danger, the police should be immediately informed.
Top tips for parents:
Pamela Whitby’s book Is Your Child Safe Online is released today, on the occasion of Safer Internet Day. In it, she compiles key practical tips to help parents protect their child. Although her book covers many issues to do with internet safety in-depth, here is a snippet of advice for parents:
• Learn some of the Instant Messenger speak:
POS (parent over shoulder)
PANB (parents nearby)
PAL (parents are listening)
PA (parent alert)
P911 (my parents are coming)
WTGP (want to go private)
IPN (I’m posting naked)
IWALU (I will always love you)
KOL (kiss on lips)
• Remind your child not to respond to abusive messages that are sent by text, instant message, email or in chat rooms. This is difficult, but in the heat of the moment your child might say something that could later be used against them.
• Block or filter use of certain applications to prevent children from watching videos using streaming software or instant messenger services such as Skype or Windows Live Messenger.
• Use a child-friendly search engine where appropriate, such as Google safe search or Yahooligans, but remember no technology is perfect.
• Learn how to print or save the screen so that any offensive messages can be kept.
• Agree to the amount of leisure time your child will spend online each day. Get them to think through what they think is enough and why. And then stick to it.
• Have the computer in the family room where the children play games so that the parents can see their children even if they are in front of screens and can monitor if any homework is being done, too.
Advice for children from the Virtual Global Taskforce:
What is online grooming?
Online grooming is when a person over the age of 18 contacts a child under 16 to form a trusting relationship, with the intention of later engaging in a sexual act either via mobile phone, webcam or in person.
Who are online groomers and how do they get my attention?
Online groomers can be both men and women of any age over 18, although they may not always be honest about their age. They generally get your attention by using flattery and building a “trusting” relationship with you. At times you may be unaware of the type of information you are giving them, but you do it because you feel comfortable talking to them.
What is the risk of sending images of myself?
If you decide to send pictures of yourself or post them online, you can attract unwanted attention from people you don’t know or people you do not want to be talking to. You can lose control of your image and not know who is looking at your picture or where it may end up. If you are under the age of 18 and have a picture taken of yourself, wearing minimal or no clothing, it can be referred to as child pornography.
What if someone asks me to do something I don’t want to do?
It is important that you tell someone what has happened if you are made to feel uncomfortable online. The first thing you should do is tell an adult that you trust. They will be able to help you. You can also use the Report Abuse button on the VGT website (www.virtualglobaltaskforce.com), which will send an online form to the police. If you feel like you are in immediate danger, contact your local police straight away. Blocking or deleting the person from your contact list is another good thing to do, but make sure your parents or a trusted adult is aware of what has happened, too.
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