Cyber bullying in Dubai

Expert speak on the reality of the dangers facing kids in the digital age


Emer O’Doherty: This topic is very important to us and we’ve all become conscious we need to know more about the dangers of online in this digital world. Firstly, some statistics: The UK’s National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) says one in five eight- to 11-year-olds and seven in ten 12- to 15-year-olds have a social media profile. One in three children have been the victim of cyber bullying. Three-quarters of parents have looked for or received information or advice about how to help their child manage online risks. Jamil, please tell us what it is you’re doing to help in the UAE.

Jamil Ezzo: We work closely with various government agencies or individual schools, educational zones, the Ministry of Education, and so on, targeting teachers, parents and children. You talk to them differently, because their concerns are different. To add to the alarming statistics – there are around 60 percent of kids who have experienced some form of bullying. But bullying is not always how we view it. We see it as the bully and bullied both being victims, because of a lack of education and awareness. What’s more alarming is that maybe more than 30 percent of children don’t know bullying is a crime punishable by law. We need to raise awareness from all angles. We need to talk about how it’s affecting others, how it could affect them as bullies and how it affects their future. Most parents think it is their school’s duty to carry out the awareness part, while schools are not prepared to handle the subject fully. Teachers need to be trained and certified – we’re working with various government entities on making a mandate for schools to adopt cyber safety rules, or a cyber safety ambassador, who can deal with problems.

Carolyne Allmark: Our kids are online during the school day now more than ever before. So what are the key strategies schools currently have in place to deal with cyber bullying?

Matt Ashton: Awareness is a massive part of it. Ensuring all teachers are streamlined in their understanding. I find quite often lots of cases are brought to us and parents feel their children are being bullied. Sometimes we find that, yes, I’ll never disagree that that goes on. Sometimes it’s obvious and not. We need to make sure the parents understand what we think bullying is as well, so we’re looking for the same characteristics and traits. It’s really difficult. You have to have very difficult discussions with parents and children. Every school will do it differently as well.

Malachy McGrogan: We teach Secondary and the first unit we would teach as part of IT is online safety. So kids are aware of what happens to your personal information, digital footprint, how long it will be around for. There’s a big push on this at the beginning of the year. We need to reach the teachers, parents and students – it’s a three-point attack. We do our best with students, but with parents it’s harder. It’s a case of whether we can invite them in and talk to them about what the students learn. Growing up, I had games consoles and my parents bent the rules regularly. I was allowed to play games beyond my age, and now we’re seeing the same thing with social media. Kids are allowed to set-up these profiles before they’re legally allowed.

Sara Sadik: I know the average age of a child or pre-teen actually having social media accounts is 11. My kids are far off from that, but the world we’re living in now is very different. I’m a big believer in leading by example. My eldest is three – they see us on our phone and using the swiping action. She sees that I am an influencer or mummy blogger. You’re showing your kids from very early on. I think it starts before they go to school.

Emer O’Doherty: Do you think kids are meaner since we were on the playground?

Sunaina Vohra: With cyber bullying, the geographic implications are much larger. Playground time is limited to ten to 15 minutes. Online it’s 24/7. Given that our children and a lot of us are on our devices 24/7, there is no respite. The impact of cyber bullying is larger.

Sam Fleet: I’m quite unique in that I’ve never had Facebook, Instagram and so on – I just have LinkedIn for work purposes. From my perspective, what’s difficult is how to police it while still giving my eldest son, who is 13 years old, some independence and trust. All three of my kids love the screens and love being on YouTube, but as much as we do watch them and put different privacy settings and child safety settings on the devices, I don’t think the providers do enough to help police it and help parents. That’s the biggest issue for me. I think my son would say I’m quite a strict parent. I do preempt things. Because what you perceive as an acceptable thing to say online might have a very different impact on another person. It’s all about “banter” and having a laugh, but as much as he might find it funny, we need to explain to him how people might perceive it. He’s been on the receiving end of it as well, so he’s sensitive to it, but he’s still 13.

Emer: Let’s turn to you, Jen. Please tell us what you’ve been doing.

Jen Neffer: I’ve had my own start-up company over the last three years and I wanted to share it with young people. We took it into Year 9, 10 and 11 and chose the topic of cyber bullying. We learned that the kids do seem to want to deal with things themselves, but they also recognise they need to reach out. They do want to talk to their parents. Some others think their parents are over-reacting and think: “Is there a way I can get over it myself? It’s not bullying, it’s just banter”. Others say: “I’m under pressure here and I want to speak to someone else”. Pull all that together and we’re coming up with an app to take around schools. We’ve even got Microsoft on board, which has said we’ll build a prototype and take it out and test it.

Jamil: I wish you success with that. Kids don’t tend to be proactive in cyber bullying. We have to be proactive as parents or as teachers or policymakers about how we spread awareness. This can be done in many shapes or forms – one is an app like yours. We need some sort of public awareness drive on the dangers of online activity when it comes to kids. You have to talk to them based on their age group. They all come with the thinking that they know best. We need to reinforce what they know best, with some sort of sensitivity or discipline, if you like, on how they carry themselves online. A lot of kids don’t know what they post online is permanent. It may not be held against you in future, but if you post it it remains a stain forever. One fact remains – a lot of kids don’t rely on their parents or teachers when they get in trouble. We have to educate some kids within each school, to take on responsibility to educate other kids. We have to raise awareness on a peer lever, rather than an adult teaching kids.

Omaira Al Olama: I completely agree. It should be government entities involved from day one. We can’t not give them the iPad or let them get involved. We started with industrial, then electrical, today we are a technology-based nation. We have to educate them. Have young mentors and a young brand ambassador for bullying. Children will be able to relate to that. When I was studying criminology in the US, it was a different concept. They take it very seriously there. It’s more clear-cut. Here, there is no clear definition of what bullying is. It would be beneficial if we had a list of guidelines for what is considered bullying, and what can affect a child’s psychology.

Carolyne Allmark: What if your child is the bully? How do you identify that?

Dr Kandace Williams: The first thing we would do is investigate the situation. See what exactly is going on, what was said and really investigate from there. We do call in parents if we truly think it fits the definition of bullying. It all starts from very young and we need to make sure they not only have the tools – digital education, acceptable use policies in a school – but it’s also really important to teach them to be good people. To let them understand that record is all there. Follow that golden rule – how they wish to be treated and how to be respectful. To not do anything online that you wouldn’t do in person.

Sunaina: I recently conducted a series of workshops on cyber bullying. The idea is to raise awareness and not to tell them not to use apps. I use the example of a knife – you can use it to cut vegetables or to kill someone. You can use the apps, but we need to know the boundaries and the age limits. A lot of kids are allowed, even if not by the parents, they’re still logging in with a profile. It could be a fake profile. But what is the right thing to do? Nothing on the cyber world is temporary. Today, when you go to a college, when you’re looking for a job, even the HR managers of companies ask for your Facebook profile. Today, when you want to find out about someone, you just type a name into Google. My core group are teenagers and I know they can’t think long-term. As educators, as coaches, as parents, we need to continuously reinforce to them that three years down the line, five years down the line, that one silly picture or one silly comment you made might be the thing that is going to hold you back from that dream college or dream job. I can’t deny access to my children, but we have very clear rules at home. We teach them to turn off their devices. I give very scientific explanations as to why we need to be careful.

Emer: What are the policies in schools?

Matt: We changed our policy this year. Previously, they were allowed their own phones and that was taken away this year. We have iPads they can access in a controlled environment in a classroom. They need to learn how to use technology.

Malachy: I find that interesting. We’re going the other way. We’ve developed a bring-your-own-device policy. We believe it’s successful. This is the first year they’re allowed to bring in their phones. We have very limited cases where technology causes a problem and we feel in our school it has a positive effect.

Jamil: Most schools in the UAE and across the region don’t have a clear policy for parents and students. They should be put together between the parents and the school. A school has to say a kid must not spend more than four hours a day on a computer or tablet, or online in general, and that has to be implemented at home as well as at the school. So there really is a seamless partnership.

Omaira: It would be great for schools and IT departments to talk to the students about putting your location online – like Foursquare – and the dangers of that.

Sara: A lot of what we’ve talked about is policy change, but I really believe it starts as young as my children are. It starts at home. There has to be a dialogue between schools and homes, too.

Emer: We’ve spoken about cyber bullying, but we also have to worry about online predators.

Sam: We’ve experienced it first-hand. We have a family Skype account and have had people trying to connect. The language and content of what they’re writing – you can tell they’re not children trying to contact my children. You can see it’s an adult and not for the right reasons. We’ve had those conversations in our house years ago. The guidelines are that you don’t connect with anyone online you don’t know.

Malachy: The online gaming community is full of pitfalls and dangers that definitely parents don’t know about. My kid is on Minecraft now, but I know later he’ll be on that online gaming world. It’s quite worrying about knowing how to approach that and how to teach him about that.

Omaira: In the UK we have amazing rules and policies, and the police here are [making similar strides]. My best advice to all parents is to report all these sites to the local government. There is a whole system in place, so if you do find something that’s not right, you report it so they can ban it.

Sara: We need an ambassador for this. I elect Mr Jamil! [Everyone laughs.]

Jamil: I just want to add that there is a whole world out there called the dark net. What you see on the internet is about ten percent of what the internet is. Anything that’s wrong with the world is in the dark net. I go back to the need for educating. Because of the borderless online world we have today, we can’t go after the predator. It’s very difficult to reach the predator. The best defense is education and awareness. I encourage you all to go to It has resources to help you educate your kids.

Who's Who

1. Carolyne Allmark
Carolyne is a section editor at Time Out Kids and mum of two young digital natives.

2. Matt Ashton
Head of Pastoral, Safa Community School, Matt has been teaching for seven years and before that worked in schools mainly with a focus on the behaviour of challenging individuals.

3. Dr Kandace Williams
Superintendent, Clarion School. Dr Williams has 20 years of school leadership experience.

4. Omaira Al Olama
A trained criminologist, Omaira has vast experience in the cyber world and how to access it safely.

5. Sunaina Vohra
A certified Youth and Family Coach, she helps pre-teens, teens and parents overcome various emotional struggles.

6. Jen Neffer
Through Young Innovators, Jen works with a group of young people called “digital kids” in Nord Anglia International School.

7. Sam Fleet
A mother of three, Sam has never embraced the online world and does not use social media.

8. Malachy McGrogan
A teacher of computing and IT at Dubai English Speaking College. McGrogan has been an educator for nine years.

9. Sara Sadik
A writer, with the blog Finding The Magic In Mommyhood, Sara is also a concerned parent when it comes to online safety.

10. Jamil Ezzo
The Director General of ICDL Arabia, which is committed to raising awareness of and tackling cyber security.

11. Emer O’Doherty
Emer is a section editor at Time Out Kids and mum of two young children.

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