An Omani teenager was lucky to fight off a predator, but cyber beasts are happy that more children are online unmonitored. Alvin Thomas and Hasan al Lawati discuss how parents could save their kids
Technology is an ever-evolving sphere and the internet is in the forefront of all progressions in the vast field. As a matter of fact, devoid of the internet, everything from trade, forex and entertainment to online schooling and research, and even social connections would break down and send today’s world spiralling into a dark abyss – quite literally.
Microsoft founder Bill Gates once said: “The internet is becoming the town square for the global village of tomorrow.” Little did he know back then that the internet would soon take over the people of all ages.
Today, the age limit to visit Facebook, for instance, is a mere 13 years; and most websites are easily accessible by everyone – including children – daily.
All one requires is a smartphone and an internet connection – and the world is then at their fingertips. While all of this translates to children picking up on technology at a fast rate and at a young age, it also spells doom for a growing number of children who are falling victim to what is now becoming a common threat across the world: online predators.
In layman’s terms, an online predator is someone who uses the internet, cellphone, or other digital devices to exploit vulnerable adolescents for abusive purposes. And more children are falling into the traps set by predators online.
Recent statistics by Ofcom – a communications regulating company – reveals that a staggering 67 per cent of children in the 5 to15 age group use the internet daily. It means that more children access the internet than playing video games on consoles. What’s more worrying is that 62 per cent of kids in the age group also access the internet through smartphones, much of which is unsupervised by parents or elders.
While the statistics may come as no surprise, what one must keep in mind is that as of January 2017 there were more than 1.8 billion websites on the internet. The number has substantially grown since.
All of this means that the number of children falling prey is higher than ever before – and something must be done to protect them.
According to Tariq al Barwani, the founder of Knowledge Oman, this begins with raising awareness among parents. “Parents are responsible for the online habits of their children,” he says.
“If you ask me if children are safe online, I would say that it depends on the usage. For example, if I use my phone while driving, then the chance of me having an accident will be increased. This is also the case online: The internet is like an encyclopedia and if you search for something, you will get it.
“And this is how one can stumble on bad content online,” he remarks, adding that “education is key to keep the children safe on the internet. You need to tell the kids what is right and what is wrong; maybe even explain why they mustn’t go somewhere that they aren’t supposed to.”
He’s right. An investigation we conducted led us to a report that about 15 per cent of all websites on the internet is intended explicitly for adults. Worryingly, a study by Shared Hope International, a welfare organisation, stated that 42.1 per cent of kids they interviewed admitted they had seen online porn.
One in 16 has been exposed to hardcore pornography.
Also, one in 12 confessed to having exchanged messages with explicit content to other people, while one in 25 sent graphic photos of themselves.
While it is important to teach adolescents the need to limit personal information shared online, the reality is that they do connect with people. And it only takes one click to fall into the wrong habitat.
Online Safety Site, a website that focuses on the safety of internet users, states that 91 per cent of all teens post photos of themselves online. A major factor involved in this rise is the acceptance of Instagram. A majority of teens – 58 per cent – do not think posting photos or other personal info on social networking sites is unsafe. To them we say: Read the news.
Some of the news headlines that was published online in 2017 goes like this: ‘1 in 4 children have experienced something upsetting on this social networking site’ and ‘Internet Watch Foundation identifies over 57,000 URLs containing child abuse images’.
Little wonder then that there were over 12,000 counselling sessions with young people who talked to Childline about online issues in 2016 and one in three children have been a victim of cyber bullying. Staggeringly, there were over 2,100 counselling sessions with young people who talked to Childline about online child sexual exploitation (CSE) in 2016.
Meanwhile, in the Sultanate, the Information Technology Authority (ITA) stopped around 1.7 million cyber attacks in 2016. The latest statistics are being checked and verified by the ITA for release.
More alarming, however, is that in 2016, 6,416 spyware and 7,824 viruses were found and quarantined.
Talking to Y about this subject, Leena Francis, the principal of Indian School al Seeb, says: “When we tackle online safety for children, we must split it into two age categories – 3 to 13 and 13 to 19.
“Then we must see how this affects the children. It all begins with health. Continuous usage of internet through a computer or a smartphone can have detrimental effects on health. A child can have vision problems or their grey matter in the brain can be damaged. While these are grave concerns, another worry is the mental health of the child.”
The teacher for more than two decades then adds: “The kids in the first category are in a development phase and they require time to play outside, study and with their families. Else, it’ll cause problems as they grow up.
“Next is parental influence on the kids. There’s no doubt that children look up to their parents, and sometimes parents themselves are engrossed in their smartphones or have very less time to engage with their kids. In such cases, they may end up gifting a smartphone to their child to make them happy.
“But you don’t know what they are doing or which sites they are visiting, because, you know, you don’t have the time.”
She then asserts in a deep tone: “Parents are key to keeping their kids safe from explicit websites. Parental guidance is a good means of helping children improve their knowledge. By keeping track of what children are doing – that is, by monitoring access to sites or by sitting with them – we can help them enhance their information base. This can be done by letting them access informative websites that can visually help them learn.”
The real challenge, according to Leena, is when children reach their teenage years. “This when it becomes a greater challenge. The child will not appreciate monitoring and will want their freedom. So, the parents will need to be smarter in their approach.
She advises parents to check
what the child has been involved in after they have used the computer or phone – and then block the explicit websites.
“While all of this may be a hassle, what I have learnt in my years of teaching is that this can be averted to an extent by teaching the child about certain values and what they mustn’t do. If this is inculcated in the child from a very young age, then they will most likely take care by themselves,” she adds.
During our extended conversation, Tariq also stresses the importance of parents in how the child behaves online.
“Kids of today are so smart and they can do anything they want. So, it’s very crucial that parents take time to actually monitor their child’s behaviour online. Block websites using an application, if need be,” he advises.
Some of the best software programs of today, as per PC Magazine, to monitor and control devices are: Kaspersky Safe Kids, Qustodio, Net Nanny, Symantec Norton Family Premier, and SafeDNS. One of these will only set you back approximately RO16.
Tariq then adds: “A child needn’t be necessarily visiting a website or opening up an application to stumble upon something or someone illegal or explicit. It can be through peers; it is what drives a lot of kids into trouble today.
“Kids also grasp very fast, and just a single visit can trigger more. So, make sure you use a reliable application to configure and filter out content on your computers. And it’s not just computers, to be honest. You need to configure your smart TV, smartphones and so on, too.”
But even then, all of this wouldn’t have protected the innocence of a young Omani boy (who wished not to be named) who turns 16 this year.
In an earlier interview with Y, the teenager said he had fallen victim to a predator through an online game: “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 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.”
After a bit of hesitation, the young boy sent her what she had requested. He said she had immediately responded to his message, but in a different tone. “It was like she was waiting for it,” he said, adding that the person had then begun threatening him.
“She said she would send my photos to all my friends. She said I had to pay her in online currency if she were to delete the photos. I couldn’t even face anyone. It went on like this for a week. But then I couldn’t take it anymore 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.”
They contacted Gmail through support.google.com, whose team immediately came to their rescue. He believes that the lady has been put behind bars as no other damage occurred.
This goes to show that something as innocent as an online game can be used by online predators to attack children. We are also witnessing a sharp increase in reports of children coming close to meeting predators on social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat, or chat-based websites such as 4Chan and Reddit; and even video-sharing websites such as YouTube.
For instance, innocent searches on YouTube have been reported to return explicit videos. Also worrying is how many ‘child-friendly’ applications on Google Play have been known to contain inappropriate content.
One particular application titled the ‘Call Blaze and The Monster Machines 2018’, which was available for download on Google Play, reportedly played disturbing messages.
It started like this: “Hi kids, I’m your new friend Happy Slappy, or whatever you want me to be called. You see I want to play with you kiddo, maybe we could perform some fun games together.”
But it concluded by saying: “What’s this hogwash. You look afraid. Is it this knife in my whirly twirly hands. Making you a little nervous ha (sic).
“That’s all right ‘cause (sic) this knife is gonna (sic) improve your look when it’s sticking right out of you.”
This isn’t the first time a game has been reported as inappropriate for kids online. Russian-origin ‘Blue Whale Game’ is known to have claimed over 130 teen deaths in Russia alone. The game reportedly sets harmful challenges to kids under the age of 15 – or the administrator will threaten to kill family members or reveal other information.
Don’t for a second think that it hasn’t affected the region. Just last week, it took the life of one Jordanian child.
Is there a way by which we can forestall such occurrences? The answer to that, Tariq says, is simple: “Education.”
“We need to go a long way to reach out to children and parents – and educate them about these negative things on the internet. But for that we’ll need schools to begin awareness campaigns and students must be taught about it in computer labs.
Principal Leena is moving forward with a plan to launch a new campaign in her school. “To begin with, I’m planning a campaign for parents so they are aware of what must be done at homes to protect their children. They are the first people that must be approached by the kids if they fall into a trap. “Then we need to teach the students. They don’t need to be shy to come forward and tell us what they saw. If they cannot reveal it to their parents, then we are here to listen to
“We also have counsellors who can really help them with this so that the children can recover safely and continue with their lives as normal human beings,” she tells us.
And as Tariq rightly points out: “The internet is not a horrible place; it has opened up the world and made it a bigger place. All we need to do is incorporate a bit of discipline so that everything remains in order.”
BabySam Saamuel Kutty, explains the cyber risks being faced by children and the role parents need to play
Do you think the kids of today are safe online?
The kids of today are digital natives as against the previous generation of millennials who were digital pioneers. So, they feel at home with the internet or digital media. Nevertheless, cyber crimes are an increasing reality and, therefore, cyber security is a valid concern. But in my opinion, the internet and technological safety is and should be everyone’s concern, given that in this era of accelerated technological advances, all of us are learning together to safely navigate the digital sphere. I believe children of today are as vulnerable online as they are offline. The same precautionary measures that are applicable in real life would be applicable in e-life too, in addition to technology specific ones. These include staying away from strangers, being courteous, reporting to parents anything they find offensive or disturbing, etc. Online bullying is an increasing concern. There have been many global instances where children couldn’t cope with such kind of bullying, sometimes even from a mob, and have resorted to ending their lives.
How do we keep children safe on the internet?
Apart from the obvious risks to personal safety and security, the internet is also more or less a permanent record of our online interactions. It is extremely hard, if not impossible, to eliminate our online pasts. The millennials are slowly learning the impact of their online indiscretions. The solution is definitely not to alienate children from technology. Despite the risks, they would still require it for their personal and academic needs. The trick is in balancing controls and freedom. There are practical steps that parents could take such as setting up parental controls, firewalls, privacy settings, password protection of devices, routers, blocking unsafe websites, enabling safe-browsing through safe-search features in mainstream browsers or through specific child-friendly browsers, limiting internet time, restricting social media networks, etc. Along with these, regular monitoring is necessary. There are apps that let parents receive alerts for specific activities. The most important step is to create awareness and conversations around the risks involved, especially concerning the protection of their privacy. The internet itself provides the answers to the questions it poses. There are plenty of resources and short courses available online intended for parents and children alike that teach them everything they need to know about personal cyber security. According to me, an even larger threat is from the internet-enabled devices such wearables, smart home devices such as smart televisions and other artificial intelligence devices. There are even internet-enabled toys usually with voice and/or image recognition. Because these are thought to be safe and unobtrusive, the risks they pose may not be even apparent to us, as opposed to conventional devices such as phones or tablets.
Are parents vigilant in protecting the kids?
There is definitely a certain degree of awareness. However, more often than not, the proactive actions that could be taken are bypassed in favour of convenience. I would like to reiterate that as digital, artificial intelligence, robotics and telecom advances faster than ever before, we as adults and parents must keep up with the risks involved and the ways and means to overcome them. It is also the responsibility of parents to ensure that the children of today become better cyber citizens, not just in terms of their safety but also their behaviour towards others.