As news of an 11-year-old boy’s suicide shocked the world after a cyber prank, Alvin Thomas aims to find out how safe your children are online, and what you can do to protect them.
March 14, 2017: It’s a cold evening in the American state of Michigan, and Katrina Goss’s 11-year-old son, Tysen Benz, has just come home after his tutoring class.
Today is a special day in the life of the youngster: he managed his way from home to the class and back, all by himself.
Tysen is proud of what he has achieved. After all, not many youngsters of his age head out without the supervision of an adult. Surely then, a treat is in order. So Tysen and his mother spend the next few hours baking brownies for himself and his brothers.
After dinner, the youngster races upstairs to his room, as usual. Tysen usually spends his time watching television or playing on his smartphone, so this is nothing out of the ordinary for Katrina.
Katrina spends the next few minutes chatting with her other two sons and doing the dishes. The young mother is completely unaware of what her son is up to; but even more oblivious of the pain he is experiencing, and what he is plotting in his mind.
But little does Katrina know about the life-altering event that is about to occur.
Cut to Tysen’s room: the youngster is on his smartphone, and has found out that he has received a bunch of disturbing text messages on his Facebook, Snapchat and other social media accounts. According to the messages, his 13-year-old girlfriend has just committed suicide.
Messages about her apparent suicide begin pouring in from his friends and, as any sane individual would, Tysen panicked.
But what he did next completely changes the course of events: an hour after he starts receiving the messages, Tysen takes a piece of cloth and hangs himself from the ceiling, not knowing that all of this is, in essence, a prank; a prank that was plotted and executed by the girlfriend and his friends.
Meanwhile, Katrina heads to her son’s room to kiss him goodnight. And to her horror, she finds her son hanging from the ceiling, motionless.
She immediately helps him off the makeshift noose, and tries to resuscitate him. Meanwhile, her sons have also called for an ambulance. The paramedics arrive, but are still unable to revive him so Tysen is taken to a nearby hospital, but is declared brain-dead by doctors. The youngster is kept alive by machines for three weeks, before breathing his last on April 4, 2017.
In an interview with international media, Katrina is quoted as saying: “We had to let him pass on. He was severely brain damaged and the doctors told us he would never recuperate, that it wasn’t even really him anymore. I was at his bedside for three weeks. We are utterly devastated and we will never get over it.
“He was amazing – an amazing athlete who was super fun and had a great sense of humour. He was extremely social; the whole community is upset.
“She [the girlfriend] did nothing to contact me or the authorities. I truly don’t know what the point of this prank was. I don’t even know how that’s supposed to be funny, especially if she cared about him at all. I am not sure how that could be a joke.
“He was 11. Little kids don’t need to worry about that stuff. These kids don’t even think what they’re doing online is real. They don’t comprehend the magnitude of their words and how their actions can impact other people.”
In another interview with CNN, Katrina says: “Parents need to monitor their children’s online activities so things like this don’t happen.
“Monitor who they are conversing with; how long they are on their devices; force parental settings, and most of all, not to be afraid to take them away. You are the parent, and you should have complete control over the technology they use.”
With Tysen gone, and his “girlfriend” charged with “telecommunication services-malicious use and using a computer to commit a crime”, which carries a maximum punishment of one year in jail, Katrina says: “I do not want to have any contact or anything to do with her.”
Tysen’s story can be termed as a tragic case of cyberbullying. However, recent reports show that it isn’t just cyberbullying that we have to be concerned about, but rather the rising number of cybercrimes committed against children around the world.
“Children are at a higher risk of being affected by technology than ever before, and children in Oman are just as vulnerable to cybercrimes as kids from other countries are,” says Melanie, the operations manager of a leading cyber security firm in Oman, who did not want her surname published for privacy reasons.
“Everything is accessible. And technology is evolving by the day, so I have to say that parents of today cannot keep track of what their child is doing.
“There are numerous platforms with which children can access the internet. Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Tumblr, etc. are all social media platforms that are dominated by children under the age of 18.
“And as a parent, keeping track of all this can be overwhelming. But there is one very good reason as to why you should keep an eye out on what your child does: it is because there is a difference in the internet you use and the one your child uses.
“You may use social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter to keep track of your friends and family. A large chunk of adults also have a specific trusted websites he or she will visit. So the risk of falling prey is substantially less. But your child isn’t like that. The child is on the internet to find something interesting to do or watch, and that opens up the possibility of stumbling upon something very vulgar… or illegal. And the internet is designed by people who look to entrap such young minds.”
According to a recent global survey conducted by InternetSafey101, more than 30 per cent of the entire internet is pornographic material, and 90 per cent of boys and 60 per cent of girls are exposed to some element of this by the age of 18.
Guardchild, an organisation that aims to create awareness among parents and teenagers against cybercrimes, also recently published a global report, which revealed that more than 70 per cent of children aged between seven and 18 have stumbled upon explicit content while surfing the web.
They also reveal that more than 56 per cent of children aged from eight to 12 have a mobile phone, of which 44 per cent of them claim to have watched content online that their parents wouldn’t approve of, while just 28 per cent of parents were made aware by their children about the content they watched.
“There are numerous sides to online security and pornography is one of those that we take very seriously,” says a source at the Royal Oman Police (ROP), who requested that we not publish his name.
“Oman blocks all explicit websites and makes sure that they remain out of the hands of the young children.
“But there is a way around everything. Nowadays, we find that kids – mostly teenagers – use VPN to access these websites.
“But let me tell you, we have a bigger problem on our hands today: criminals on the internet [cybercriminals].
“We hear so many incidents about online bullying in other countries and think that we are safe from that here. But the truth is that it is our kids who are the victims. There is no Oman, UAE, UK or US when it comes to the internet; the whole internet is one.
The ROP source says that it is very easy for a criminal based in the US to contact an Omani thanks to the likes of encrypted chats, forums and online games. “We don’t get a lot of complaints, because most of the bullying or sexual advances happen in online chat rooms,” he says. “They are extremely private and you and I cannot easily obtain information that is shared there. The only way would be to stand behind the child and see how they are conversing.”
He also points out that the kids of today are afraid to come clean to their parents because they fear being punished, grounded or shouted at.
During our investigation, we also contacted a former Omani victim (who was willing to speak to Y anonymously) who was asked for compromising photographs of himself. He says: “It all started when I was playing the game Clash of Clans on my smartphone. I met a very nice girl, who claimed that she was 19 years old at that time, in the chat room of the game.
“We got very close, and for me that was my first such experience. I was only 15 years old at that time. It was all very innocent at first, but as time went by, I was asked to send compromising photos of myself. At first, I didn’t. But as time went by, I slowly started opening up to her, and then out of pressure, and my budding interest in her, sent some photos.”
He says that she immediately responded to his messages, but in a different tone.
“It was like she was waiting for it,” he says, adding that the person then began threatening him.
“She comes back to say that she would send my photos to all my friends. She then said that I had to pay her in online currency if she were to delete the photos.”
The youth then breaks down and cries, saying that he had to stop seeing his friends, fearing the worst.
“I couldn’t even face anyone. It went on like this for a week.
“But then I couldn’t take it any more and so I decided to come clean with my father. I told him everything, and he took my phone, and sent the Clash of Clans developers, Supercell, a screenshot of all the chats. And surprisingly, they came back to us saying that they had removed the user from the game, and that I would have to report to Google directly, since I sent all my photos via Gmail.
The youth says that they then contacted Gmail through support.google.com, whose team immediately came to their rescue.
“There’s a form that we filled out and in a few days’ time, they made sure to send us another form for us to register a complaint with the US authorities as that was where the felon was from.
“I haven’t heard from her since. It has been three years now and I believe that she has been put behind bars.
While the youth can now breath easy, he has learned a valuable lesson about internet stranger danger. Unfortunately, however, there has been a sharp increase in reports of children coming close to meeting online predators – through social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat or chat-based websites such as Omegle, 4Chan and Reddit; and even video sharing websites such as YouTube.
Another report published by Guardchild states that 20 per cent of children aged between 13 and 18 have been the target of unwanted solicitation requests.
It also revealed that more than 17 per cent of tweens surveyed reported that they had received an email or online message with photos or words that made them uncomfortable, and that 89 per cent of all solicitation requests were made in chat rooms or through instant messaging applications, such as WhatsApp, IMO and Kik.
Raed Dawood, Ooredoo Oman’s director of government relations and corporate affairs, says: “Apps, social media and other digital sources are both educational and fun but they do have risks. While Ooredoo invests in the latest security and protection technology to combat threats, parents also have to play their part in keeping their children safe.”
He says there are a range of simple steps that parents can take to keep their children safe and out of trouble while surfing the web.
“Firstly, mums and dads must make sure their child does not give out personal information, such as phone numbers, email addresses and passwords to anyone when they are messaging through WhatsApp or social media.
“Secondly, we advise parents to make it clear that children should only chat with real world friends and family, and should not accept friend requests from people they don’t actually know,” he advises, adding that youngsters should also avoid meeting anyone they have been in touch with online.
“This can be extremely dangerous.”
He then highlights the importance of keeping a watch out for signs of cyberbullying. “Look for changes in behaviour, not wanting to be with friends or go out and above all, let them know they can come and talk to you if they ever feel worried or uncomfortable about someone or something they have come across online.”
Dawood adds that parents should set internet filters to limit sites children can visit, and to ask for help from friends, colleagues or teachers if they do not know how to do this. He also reminds parents of the dangers of messaging groups and advises them to beware of their child connecting with strangers during gaming or interactive group apps.
One Muscat-based parent, Abu Baqar, says: “I have two children [aged five and eight], and they both have their own iPads. But I have installed an application called YouTube Kids from iTunes for them. So they can only view videos that are safe enough for them to watch.
So every night, I sit down with my son and daughter and we discuss what they did online. Thankfully, I have not come across any suspicious links, but if I do, I will confront them peacefully.
But he says he understands that no one is completely safe online. However, Abu Baqar’s worry is real: the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) recently revealed that at any given time there are at least 50,000 sexual predators lurking for children online. And given that 96 per cent of today’s teens use social networking applications (according to Child Exploitation and Online Protection), the chances of one stumbling upon a predator is at an all-time high. An estimated 725,000 children (surveyed from 20 countries) had been “aggressively exploited” online in 2016 alone.
The ROP source confirms that there are cases being registered in Oman of children being exploited, but he declines to share statistics or details of the cases with us. However, he adds: “We have to often work with authorities abroad in order to catch the felons. This takes time as we do not receive full cooperation from the authorities sometimes.
“But we do our best, you should know,” he says, adding that “safety should begin at home”.
Susan, another Muscat-based parent of three children [aged three, nine and 12], says: “There is only so much shouting and confiscating a device can do. Sometimes, the best thing is to sit down with them and talk to them about what they did online.”
“I personally check the internet search history and also encroach into their field of view to keep an eye on what they are doing.
“Going all out CIA or FBI on them doesn’t work,” she laughs.
There are a host of applications that can be downloaded onto a child’s smartphone to keep a tab on your child’s online activities, as well as their whereabouts. Norton by Symantec, PhoneSheriff and ESET Parental Control are all applications with excellent ratings. However, most smartphones of today now come with safe modes: both Samsung and Apple iPhones have “Kid Mode” built into the phone’s settings for locking down certain functionalities. Other Android users can opt for third-party applications like Norton Family Parental Control, Net Nanny and Mobicip.
Meanwhile, personal computers can be configured by installing anti-virus applications that can track every move of your child online.
“It isn’t too late for you to track your child’s activities online. It isn’t an invasion of their privacy; it is looking after them; it is safeguarding their life and, above all, it is making sure that you are always there to protect them from the evils of the society,” Melanie advises.
• Don’t post any personal information online – like your address, email address or mobile number.
• Think carefully before posting pictures or videos of yourself. Once you’ve put a picture of yourself online most people can see it and may be able to download it, it’s not just yours any more.
• Keep your privacy settings as high as possible.
• Never give out your passwords.
• Don’t befriend people you don’t know.
• Don’t meet up with people you’ve met online. Speak to your parent or carer about people suggesting you do.
• Remember that not everyone online is who they say they are.
• Think carefully about what you say before you post something online.
• Respect other people’s views, even if you don’t agree with someone else’s views doesn’t mean you need to be rude.
• If you see something online that makes you feel uncomfortable, unsafe or worried: leave the website, turn off your computer if you want to and tell a trusted adult immediately.
Step into their cyberworld
It may be hard to keep your eyes open after visiting what seems like the 100th website devoted to Barbie or cars, but playing co-pilot to your child is the best way to make sure he or she gets a smooth ride. By the time he or she is seven, you won’t need to be glued to their side, but you should be somewhere in the room or checking in frequently.
Set house rules
Decide how much time you’re comfortable with your children being online and which sites they may go to.
Teach them to protect their privacy
While they won’t fully understand the consequences of revealing personal information online, you should still make sure your children know:
• Never to give their name, phone number, e-mail address, password, postal address, school, or picture without your permission;
• Not to open e-mail from people they don’t know;
• Not to respond to hurtful or disturbing messages;
• Not to get together with anyone they “meet” online.
Know that location is key
Keep the computer in a central spot, where it’s easy to monitor its use.
Be their go-to girl/guy
Instruct your child to come straight to you when they see anything that makes them uncomfortable, and assure them that you won’t overreact, blame them, or immediately rescind his or her online privileges.
Make your browser work double-time
If your ISP lacks that capability, you still have some safe-surfing options at hand on your browser (the program that enables you to view web pages). Internet Explorer has Content Advisor (under Tools/Internet Options/Content), which filters out explicit content on a 0 to 4 scale.
Tune-up your search engine
Your search engine can be pressed into service for free. (But be aware: a savvy child could switch the settings back.) Once you set restrictions, Google will block sites with explicit material (Preferences/SafeSearch Filtering).