Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 22 October 2019

Portrait of a Nation: the Dubai dad taking the fight to cyber bullies

Barry Lee Cummings felt compelled to tackle the digital dangers posed by online abuse

Barry Lee Cummings helped to set up Beat the Cyberbully to support children who may be suffering in silence. Pawan Singh / The National     
Barry Lee Cummings helped to set up Beat the Cyberbully to support children who may be suffering in silence. Pawan Singh / The National     

A child being bullied is a nightmare shared by every parent.

In the digital age, danger lurks not only in the playground, but in chat rooms and on social media platforms, hidden away from parents and teachers.

The potential for children to fall victim to bullying is intensified every time a child switches on their laptop or reaches for their mobile phone.

It was with those fears in mind that Barry Lee Cummings decided to set up a website to help children avoid the pitfalls of online harassment in the UAE.

Beat the Cyberbully was created by Mr Cummings, 40, and his business partner Wayne Denner, in 2014 to offer support and advice on how to stay safe online to victims and their parents.

The global statistics on cyber bullying are stark, and make Mr Cummings' work all the more important.

A study by researchers at three universities in England last year, involving more than 150,000 people aged under 25 across 30 countries, found victims of cyberbullying were at more than double the risk of self-harm or suicidal behaviour.

“I don’t want to live in a world where an 11 or 12-year-old believes the only option for them is to take their own life,” said Mr Cummings, who is from the UK.

“Children are committing suicide and they are obviously going through a process to reach that point.

“It occurred to us that it might help them to have someone to talk to while they are going through that process.”

The idea for the website came from discussions that Mr Cummings, who was working as a digital consultant to companies in the UAE at the time, had with clients.

While his role was offering advice to companies about how they should be maximising their online potential, he found a great deal of his time taken up by clients asking about what they should look out when their children were spending time online.

He said one of the biggest problems that parents faced was the fact that cyberbullying was a recently new phenomenon.

“Parents can’t fall back on how they were raised because the world has moved on so much.

“Their experiences growing up are not relevant anymore.”

One of the biggest problems about detecting cases of cyberbullying was the lack of physical evidence, according to Mr Cummings.

“When I was a kid bullying tended to be more physical, you would go home with a black eye, bruises or a clump of hair missing, it’s very difficult to hide that and you would be asked ‘hey what happened?’” he said.

“When it’s happening in the digital space it doesn’t seem to have any outward signs, if a child is uncomfortable talking about it they can hide it.”

Barry Lee Cummings. A study by researchers at three universities in England last year found victims of cyberbullying were at more than double the risk of self-harm or suicidal behaviour. Pawan Singh / The National 
Barry Lee Cummings. A study by researchers at three universities in England last year found victims of cyberbullying were at more than double the risk of self-harm or suicidal behaviour. Pawan Singh / The National 

He said the issue of cyberbullying is as prevalent in the UAE as it is anywhere else in the world, despite the diverse nature of the country’s population.

“It’s quite shocking to hear the severity of what’s happening on the ground here and the language and the insults that are being used,” he said.

“If you are from a different background it can be used against you.”

He said that girls were more likely to get involved in cyberbullying compared to their male counterparts.

“Of course boys are affected by cyberbullying, while the differences between the genders are marginal, it’s more common for male bullying to manifest in physical violence.

“Young girls take to social channels like Facebook and Instagram where it’s more of an emotional attack.”

Mr Cummings, a father-of-two, said he found that social media group chats like those found on Facebook and WhatsApp were popular conduits for cyberbullies.

“Group chats do provide a platform for cyber bullying to take place,” he said.

It just takes one person to have the courage to speak out against bullying

Barry Lee Cummings

“We have spoken to young girls who said they sent compromising pictures of themselves to someone and were being blackmailed for money as a result.

“There have been those who have paid up but the pictures still found their way to WhatsApp group chats.”

One of the key messages that Beat the Cyberbully spreads when talking at schools is the need for someone to intervene in a group chat.

“Most of the people on the group chat might not be actively participating but they can still see that certain behaviour is harmful,” he said.

“If one person speaks out and says ‘hey that is just not right’ they will be surprised by how many people in the group agree with them.

“It just takes one person to have the courage to speak out against bullying.”

Before the Dubai resident moved to the UAE, he spent five years working for Microsoft and has built up an expertise in the digital arena.

One major issue that young people were not aware of in the UAE was the fact that nothing is ever permanently deleted from their phones.

“Young people think they can send an image and set it to disappear after a certain time, that’s especially the case with those using apps like Snapchat,” he said.

“They don’t realise this can come back to haunt them though. On mobile phones there are hidden folders that operate this content.

“It never truly disappears unless you are using military grade encryption, which is unlikely.”

Updated: May 30, 2019 10:52 AM

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