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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 December 2018

How do you protect the vulnerable young on the web?

Safer Internet Day aims to teach better online habits for old and young alike

The internet’s potential for immense good has always been threatened by its vulnerability to those who seek to do harm.     Getty Images
The internet’s potential for immense good has always been threatened by its vulnerability to those who seek to do harm. Getty Images

When Safer Internet Day (SID) was first launched in February 2004 in Brussels, the European Union contained 15 members, Facebook was a two-day-old website accessible only to Harvard students and the iPhone didn’t exist. The expansion of SID in the years since mirrors the expansion of the internet. A commitment to online safety undertaken by just 14 nations in 2004 is now observed annually in about 130 countries. The technological innovations of the past decade, decanting the internet into smartphones and other affordable gadgets, have opened up the worldwide web to virtually every segment of the global population.

The overall effect has been empowering – but the internet’s potential for immense good has always been threatened by its exposure to those who seek to do harm – and the dangers have become more apparent as societies have become more dependent on it. The most vulnerable group, the central focus of SID, are the young. How do you vaccinate impressionable minds against the toxic and damaging influences emanating from cyberspace?

There isn’t a parent who hasn’t pondered this question with deep anxiety. The impact of early exposure to social media on children’s psyche, studies show, can be harmful: boys and girls as young as 10 are now painfully aware of how their appearance can be judged online and compete for attention in the virtual world, while becoming detached from the real one. The trouble is that parents who attempt to monitor or curtail children’s online activity risk alienating them because they may not fully appreciate the extent to which the young today, born as digital natives, are being moulded by virtual interactions. What parents consider reckless and dangerous in this digital era – excessive sharing of personal information, for instance – tech-savvy children often regard as normal.

The attempts to bridge the generational divide don't obscure the fact it is the young who are most vulnerable to the negative impacts of cyberspace, whether it is through bullying, being manipulated or preyed upon, or being targeted by extremist groups like ISIL, which have now turned their attention to recruiting online. Nor are adults immune; last year the UAE lost nearly Dh4 billion to online crime. This figure will multiply exponentially if those preparing to enter or rise in the workforce are not trained in cybersecurity. To coincide with SID, Google is offering an online security course for children and adults on how to protect themselves. That can only be to the benefit of old and young alike.

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