Schools must 'take lead in ensuring children's safety online'

More headteachers in UAE are setting up task forces to look at preventable threats to young people

Schools have to play an increasingly crucial role in keeping children safe online, a global expert on abuse and exploitation has said.

A report this week by Economist Impact highlighted the dangers that young children can face every time they access the internet.

"Schools have a really, really important role to play in being supportive of the children," said Iain Drennan, executive director of WeProtect Global Alliance, an organisation comprising more than 200 members, including governments, private sector companies and civil society groups.

"Schools need to make sure they have a strong online safety policy with prevention of child sexual abuse integrated into that."

I am constantly monitoring and subscribing out of things that are not appropriate
Alison Rego, Sharjah parent

Nearly half of 18 to 20-year-olds in the Middle East have suffered online abuse and exploitation, the survey of more than 5,000 people aged 18-20 across 54 countries revealed.

Research has shown that the scale of online child sexual exploitation is increasing over the world, with Covid-19 accelerating trends.

Mr Drennan previously led the UK Home Office’s international response to child sexual abuse.

"In the UAE there is some checking that schools are meeting good levels of online practice in terms of online safety," he said.

"In terms of having an open conversation, there has been a lot of progress, if you go back five to 10 years this would not have been as close to the top of the agenda as it is now."

Mr Drennan said the ideal combination of action would come from schools, governments and technology companies.

Sexual abuse against children is a heavily under-reported crime because many young people prefer to block or delete contacts rather than send a report. If abuse happens, it can take years for survivors to report it.

How schools can help

Some schools in the UAE are trying to take proactive steps to prevent online abuse and exploitation of its pupils.

Sara Hedger, Gems vice president of safeguarding and child protection, said their agenda of being safe online covered everything from child sexual exploitation to bullying.

The school group organises awareness programmes and ensures their schools have internet safety policies and workshops to create awareness among pupil and parent communities.

Children are taught how to stay safe, make sure that their friends on social media are people they know, and ensure that they have a parent on social media who is monitoring and supporting them.

"Our role as educators is to continue to feed that message that it's not about you. If someone is targeting a young person online and grooming them, we need to empower pupils to understand that this is not OK," Ms Hedger said.

"It's not common but when there have been concerns from children or parents around activities online these are dealt with really quickly and very seriously.

"We will work with pupils, parents and authorities to make sure pupils are protected."

Speaking about the number of reports filed of online sexual exploitation, Ms Hedger was fearful that it was not an accurate representation.

"Who is to say? As parents become more aware that number may rise," she said.

Rishikesh Padegaonkar, principal of Bright Riders School in Mohamed bin Zayed City, Abu Dhabi, said the school had a task force in place to combat online abuse of children. It consists of a team of people who look after the health and safety of the children, and step in when needed.

"We have well-being and counselling sessions, and we have a policy on how to use the internet and social media.

"We give pupils the right information and speak with them about the pros and cons of social media,” Mr Padegaonkar said.

“We have also associated with the social police wing of Abu Dhabi police and they take sessions for our pupils. They come to the school, speak to the children and help resolve issues.”

Close to 80 per cent of the pupils at the school continue to study online, and as parents have returned to offices, Mr Padegaonkar said many children were left online for hours studying alone at home.

Should there be a suspected case of a child facing abuse, the school alerts parents and also ensures a counsellor is around to take care of the child.

Parents can do their part

The first proactive thing parents can do is to take an interest in what their children are doing online, such as which apps they have downloaded, Mr Drennan said.

It is important to have that conversation with them about setting ground rules. If they do experience something that makes them uncomfortable they will know they can approach their parents without fear of judgement, he said.

Parents can also change safety and privacy settings, also known as parental locks, so the risk of your children coming into contact with someone who is not known to them is reduced.

Alison Rego, an Indian mother in Sharjah, said she set the rules early with her daughter, who is eight years old.

She said she had to constantly be vigilant as threats from the online world grew.

“My daughter used to play a game where people could get into chat rooms, but she is not allowed to play or chat with strangers,” Ms Rego said.

"If she gets an unknown request she can’t accept it.

"I am not afraid, but I am constantly monitoring and subscribing out of things that are not appropriate."

She also advised her daughter against clicking on advertisements, websites, or downloading things that pop up online.

Updated: October 21st 2021, 4:26 AM