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Engagement keeps children safe online

Access to the internet has changed the way the world interacts and does business. But it has also created dark corners that children especially need help navigating.

They are everywhere: mobile phones, tablets, laptops or some other portable device with direct access to the Web. And these devices seem to be in nearly everyone's hands - everyone, that is, including the youngest members of our society, children who are not always aware of how to stay safe online.

Access to the internet - and the information, ideas, views and personal connections that come with it - has changed the way the world interacts and does business. It has made our planet smaller. But it has created dark corners of an anonymous, online universe that takes skill navigating, and avoiding.

This week, the story of a 14-year-old girl reportedly raped and sexually harassed by five men she met online reminds us that children need guidance and supervision in their online activities. This particular case is still winding its way through the courts; all the facts will come out in time. But there is no question that children the world over are often vulnerable when they share too much, and trust too much, in anonymous people they connect with over social media.

The UAE is a very connected country - Twitter, Facebook and other forms of social media have a wide and growing following among all segments of society. But do parents actually know what their children are doing online? Who their children are talking to? Who their "friends" are? Parents, and other family members, must be aware of what sites their children are visiting, and who they are networking with.

Family members - parents, brothers and sisters - must all do more to safeguard children against unscrupulous people online. The inability of a child to differentiate between friend and foe is not a failure of his or her judgement as much as it is a sign that they could be networking with people they shouldn't. Many children don't realise how dangerous posting personal information like photos, email addresses and phone numbers can be.

Yet parental engagement is only one way to keep children safe online. Teachers and educators have a role, as does technology. Parental controls on computers can at least protect children when surfing at home. And why not "friend" your teenager? Parents can have Facebook accounts, too.

Our world is filled with wireless hot-spots - in parks, at cafes and in hotel lobbies. There is no reason to keep children from it. But we must help them use and interact online safely.

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