Education experts highlighted the invisible threat of cyberbullying among school pupils as the UAE launches a national drive to tackle online trolls.
A digital well-being policy was announced by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, on Monday with the goal of ensuring safe and positive experiences for people of all ages when surfing the internet.
The strategy will include an online behaviour code that will be taught to Emiratis in government schools and a new rating system to keep parents informed about the video games their children play.
Carolyn Yaffe, a counsellor and cognitive behavioural therapist at Camali Clinic in Dubai, said such anonymous abuse had become an increasing concern as a result of the rise of remote learning prompted by the Covid-19 pandemic.
“Cyberbullying has increased vastly in the past year and I have been hearing different instances of it," she said.
“Now, bullying can be done anonymously because children are online.
“It’s easier to target someone when you can be anonymous, because you don’t have to see the pain you cause.
“Children are playing games with strangers and they don’t know who is perpetuating the behaviour.”
Ms Yaffe shared accounts of online bullying she had learnt about at schools in the UAE.
In one instance, a young girl was targeted by classmates after she refused to share her test answers.
Another senior in high school was part of a WhatsApp group and faced verbal attacks and social isolation when she studied online.
“Children are spending all their time online and some are not seeing friends at all," she said.
“Children are feeling isolated and are stressed out and lash out at each other.”
Ms Yaffe called on parents to be mindful of how their children were interacting with others and to talk to them about any issues they may be facing.
Ms Yaffe said parents needed to communicate with teachers and school counsellors to address any concerns.
She said it was important for schools to ensure pupils kept their cameras on while studying remotely so teachers could be aware of what pupils were doing.
She highlighted the need for pupils to step away from computer screens and spend time with loved ones.
“It's important to structure family time. During the evening, watch movies together or have game nights,” she said.
Fiona Cottam, principal at Hartland International School in Dubai, said it was crucial that cyberbullying was dealt with and that pupils raised any concerns with teachers.
"We have been made aware of chat groups and children can be unpleasant to each other, and we make sure that we have discussions," Ms Cottam said.
“We have strict policies at schools and mobile phones cannot be used.”
But, she said, she was aware of cyberbullying happening outside school hours,
She said pupils needed to speak out, report bullying and inform someone responsible.
A surge in online bullying was sparked around the globe during the pandemic.
According to the Cybersmile Foundation, an anti-bullying non-profit organisation, Australia’s eSafety Commissioner reported a 50 per cent increase in incidents of cyberbullying during the first three weeks of the country’s lockdown.
In the UK, one in five children aged between 10 and 15 faced some kind of online bullying in 2019, amid fears that the country's lockdown would worsen the situation.
UAE's new digital well-being policy will be taught at government schools from nursery to Grade 12.
It will be incorporated into subjects such as moral education, social studies, Islamic education and computer sciences.
Material will also be given to parents so they may learn how to protect themselves and their children.