“Be the change: unite for a better internet.” This was the theme for Safer Internet Day, an annual initiative that promotes the responsible and positive use of digital technology. But what exactly does “better” mean? And what does a better internet look like for the UAE, where, according to ICDL Arabia, 37 per cent of people aged 14 to 18 have come across something worrying or upsetting online?
Some say that we need to focus on promoting a happy culture online. To that end, many students and teachers took part in Dubai’s Knowledge and Human Development Authority’s #NewYearHope campaign at the beginning of the school year. They shared messages and goals, many of which related to being confident and inspiring others.
While positive messages help construct a better online world, they are not enough on their own. Several issues have emerged in spite of these positive campaigns: online extremism, sextortion (which occurs when criminals use personal information to force victims to engage in some form of sexual activity online) and other online crimes that happen both within and outside of the UAE.
For parents, teachers, policymakers and the 37 per cent of teenagers who have come across something worrying or upsetting online, a better internet particularly means a safer internet. Many of us use social media to exchange ideas and engage with like-minded people. However, there is an increasing number of people who use it to promote very specific, narrow-minded ideas.
The digital natives have become the digitally naive. Many young people assume that others have good intentions online. For example, more than 63 per cent of teenagers in the GCC know all their social media connections personally.
On the other hand, concerned adults want to ensure their children are safe, yet aren't aware of what their children do online. According to ICDL Arabia's 2016 Cyber Safety Report, 29 per cent of parents don't even monitor their children's social media usage at all. This statistic alone is very telling about what we think we know about younger generations and what really happens on their mobile phones.
So, how do we make sure that our children don’t fall victim to radicalisation and blackmail? The ultimate way to combat cybercrime is to enhance society’s digital media literacy.
In other words, adults need to play a bigger role in teaching children how to think critically about the information they consume online and how to manage harmful content when they see it.
Teenagers need to know that the people they’re talking to may not be who they say they are and that people use certain tactics to enhance and amplify their own agenda.
According to the UK's Safer Internet Centre, there are three questions anyone should ask when they read or watch something online: first, who posted the information, and are they considered a reliable source? Second, what is the meaning of what you watched or read? Third, why is this person sharing or writing this information?
Furthermore, adults, particularly teachers, need to be equipped with the right resources to ensure their children are safe. The Ministry of Interior’s Child Protection Centre, for instance, has an easy-to-use form for citizens and residents to report cyber-related incidents online.
There is no doubt that the internet has influenced the way we think. However, we have seen a major shift in how we talk to one another online. Our conversations have polarised rather than come together.
We need to become more digitally literate and more digitally aware. Be a part of your children’s lives and have open, honest discussions with them. Take interest in what they watch and read online. Ask questions and provide your own insights.
By doing this we can work our way back to a safer internet.
Romi Ezzo is the lead copywriter at Online Sense, a public awareness initiative aimed to educate and communicate with parents, teenagers and teachers about cyber safety