x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Teach children to stop online abuse

Keeping children safe from online predators is a challenge parents can best meet by talking to their sons and daughters.

There are a lot of creeps out there. This week's news report from a Dubai courtroom, about a 36-year-old man sentenced for raping a schoolgirl after "meeting" her online, is just one of many such accounts from around the world. And there was a further disturbing detail: the man had posed online as a 15-year-old girl to gain his victim's trust.

The inestimable benefits of the internet have brought with them, unfortunately, new ways for the unstable and the perverse to harm the innocent. As children grow up, they venture into an ever-broader world, one that is rewarding, alluring, exciting - and sometimes dangerous. The challenge for parents has always been to manage that growing independence, matching the pace to the child's age, abilities and personality.

But now the dangers have evolved. Even the youngest of today's parents never heard their own parents warn them "don't say exactly where you live on Facebook". In the smartphone era, internet access is routine for all but the youngest children. Indeed, almost everyone is online, including cruel classmates, bullies, fraudsters, the deranged and the deviant.

And yet there is evidence that online sexual predators are relatively few: one US study, for example, found that 7 per cent of sex crimes against those under 18 began with internet contact. Offline domestic abuse, sexual and other, befalls many more children each year.

But responsible parents care little for probability when child safety is at issue. And this is indeed a matter for parents. Internet service providers and the police do have a role in protecting children online, but mainly after someone makes an attempt at inappropriate contact.

Studies say that most victims - including the 15-year-old in Dubai - are in their middle teens, an age of rapid change when parental edicts, or even control software, won't thwart the urge to explore; juvenile dexterity with computers is not just a rumour.

But prevention is the best cure. Parents would be well-advised to communicate, starting before that mid-teen, high-risk stage. Talk about the internet's dangers, discuss physiological changes and the realities of impending adulthood, answer questions, provide guidance, spend time with children at the computer, set an example.

Internet safety, like so many other aspects of child-rearing, turns out to be about maintaining communication - not online, but face to face.