Age restrictions on websites are not fit for purpose and are easily bypassed by tech-savvy children, leading to cyberbullying and blackmail, a paediatric psychiatrist has said.
To mark international Safer Internet Day, Dr Ateeq Qureshi, who works at the Priory Wellbeing Centre in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, said many parents were in the dark about what their offspring were doing online.
The clinic reported an increase in the number of young patients seeking help for cyber-bullying during the past two years.
“A large majority of the children I see in our clinic do not adhere to basic age guidelines while watching TV or accessing content online,” said Dr Qureshi, a child psychiatrist.
“Many children simply falsify their date of birth to obtain access to social media apps and websites, with parents often unaware and sometimes complicit.
“Sharing personal information or content – messages, photos or videos – online is also common, yet, worryingly, can sometimes result in serious repercussions.
“I’m now seeing significantly more cases where a child has experienced cyberbullying, harassment and even blackmail as a direct result of this.”
Safer Internet Day is an annual day of education falling on February 8. Launched by the EU in 2004, it is now marked by about 200 countries.
Education and awareness are likely to be even more important in the years ahead as immersive internet content expands and virtual worlds become more widely accessible.
As early adopters, young people around the world are flocking towards a new online world called the Metaverse created by Facebook's parent company, Meta.
The company’s new virtual-reality app, Horizon Worlds – currently available only in Canada and the US – is restricted to over-18s, but many users are reported to be far younger, leaving them exposed to adult strangers in a largely self-moderated virtual world.
Meta has big plans for the online universe it is helping create, with access enabled through a $300 (Dh1,100) virtual reality headset.
On Friday, Meta began rolling out a minimum physical distance between users in Horizon after users reported being harassed.
The “personal boundary” function in the immersive platform, where people can socialise virtually, puts a ring of space around users’ digital proxies.
In November, Meta launched a Mena-wide campaign ‘Report it. Don’t Share it’ to prevent people from sharing photos and videos of child sexual abuse. It is operated in partnership with the Ministry of Interior Child Protection Centre and the Digital WellBeing Council.
On Instagram, a stricter approach to what is recommended to teens on the app has been taken.
New measures prevent people from tagging or mentioning minors who don’t follow them and nudging them towards different topics if they’ve been dwelling on one topic for a long time.
“We want to empower and educate people, particularly the youth, to make digitally safe decisions and give them the information they need,” said Joelle Awwad, Meta’s public policy programmes manager for Mena.
“Safer Internet Day is a really important opportunity for us to remind our communities about the importance of safety.
“This is exactly why we are launching the Mena-dedicated website My Digital World on this day with resources that can help people navigate an increasingly digital world safely and securely.”
In the US, in 1998, the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act set an age-appropriateness rating of 13 years and above for social media sites.
Many experts now argue this age rating may not be enough to limit some of the risks now associated with the internet owing to recent advancements.
The Safer Internet Day theme for this year is “All fun and games? Exploring respect and relationships online”.
From gaming and chat, to streaming and video, international programmes are being promoted to improve online safety.
In the UAE, the Khalifa Programme Empowerment, in collaboration with the Ministry of Education, has launched the digital citizenship website Cyber C3.
The programme aims to disseminate cyber culture and awareness of the positive use of technology, the internet and fundamentals of information security.
“With the internet now an intrinsic part of day-to-day life, particularly for young people and children, age appropriateness online has never been more important,” Dr Qureshi said.
“Children are usually more technologically skilled than their parents.
“This can lull them and their parents into thinking that they are always capable of making good judgements in their online activities.
“Since children’s cognitive abilities are still developing, their ability to make complex judgements is underdeveloped.
“Children and young people are also much more impulsive and more prone to seeking instant gratification than adults are.”
In a recent report by the international WeProtect Global Alliance, half of people aged 18 to 20 in the Middle East said they had suffered online abuse or exploitation.
Speaking at an online conference about the report in October, Lt Col Dana Humaid, director general of the International Affairs Bureau at the Ministry of Interior, called on tech firms to improve internet safety.
“Prevention is the most important aspect of this to stop children seeing abuse online and create a safer environment for them,” she said.
“Key recommendations are greater regulation and tech companies to deliver more transparency in online safety tools.”