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Image Credit: AFP

UAE parents have been warning each other to keep kids off social media at the moment, as a graphic video of a man committing suicide continues to circulate across social media sites frequented by children.

The video, showing an American man taking his own life, came from a Facebook livestream broadcast on 31 August that has since gone viral across various social media platforms, including TikTok and Instagram.

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Although the TikTok immediately took down the footage when it was first uploaded on Sunday 6 September, it has since been re-uploaded multiple times, edited into so-called bait-and-switch videos, which are intended to shock and disturb unsuspecting viewers. These videos begin conventionally with child-friendly content – such as clips of cute animals or a conventional influencer to-camera video - and then cut without warning to the graphic footage.

Dubai-based Irish expat Gemma, who asked that her surname remain anonymous, was distraught to discover that her 13-year-old son had accidentally watched the suicide video, which was sent through a group chat on his Instagram.

“Unfortunately he saw the whole thing, as it happens very quickly,” she told Gulf News.

The video depicts graphic scenes of a 33-year-old ex-army veteran taking his own life with a shotgun.

“My son fully expected to see a funny meme-type video, but what he saw instead threw him completely. He was visibly shocked.”

Gemma is furious that her son was exposed to such disturbing material, despite the lengths she takes to keep him safe online with safety settings and parental monitoring. “As a parent it made me so angry that such videos are being circulated amongst kids, teens, or anyone of any age – nobody needs to see that.”

“It sent shivers down my spine”

When Dubai-based mum and social media professional, Rachel D’Gama, first heard that such graphic content was circulating on apps and websites used by kids, she felt she had to warn other parents. “Please keep your kids off social media, including YouTube, until this awful video circulating has been removed entirely,” she wrote on her Facebook status on September 8. “Keep their little minds safe.”

As the founder of social media marketing agency The Digital Peach, and the mother of a 5-year-old boy, Rachel is well placed to understand the impact that such content can have – and how difficult it can be for companies to remove it entirely.

“When I first heard about the suicide video circulating across social media, it sent shivers down my spine,” Rachel told Gulf News.

Rachel D'Gama is a Dubai-based mum and founder of The Digital Peach social media agency

Rachel D'Gama is a Dubai-based mum and founder of The Digital Peach social media agency

“To imagine the depths this man must have felt to go through with this act is, in itself, heartbreaking. But to understand the psychology of why this video was then shared to the point that it went viral is both shocking and unfathomable to me.”

Although she runs her own social media marketing business, Rachel says she does not let her son have open access to social media or any kind of tablet. “I let him watch YouTube occasionally, but he is always supervised when we do watch it. Right now, we are having a break from YouTube completely for a while.”

Rachel strongly advises other mums to do the same across all social media channels for the time being: “Unfortunately I have seen lots of comments from people whose young children have seen this video and the rate at which it’s been shared and how it’s being seeded into content - not only through TikTok, but across all of the social channels - means it is very easy to stumble across.

“Not only does this recent event open up the topic of online safety, it also highlights the predatory nature of some individuals in the digital arena.”

Why do people want to trick children into seeing graphic content?

“It’s frightening that someone would get a kick out of tricking children into watching graphic, disturbing inappropriate material,” says mother-of-three (aged 14, 12 and 10) and psychotherapist at MindSolutions.ae, Louisa Kiernander. “What’s next? Pornography? Subliminal messaging?”

Louisa Kiernander is a parent and therapist at Mindsolutions.ae

Louisa Kiernander is a parent and therapist at Mindsolutions.ae

On hearing about the viral video, Louisa messaged her 14-year-old daughter, who is currently in boarding school in the UK, to warn her about it. “If my daughter was younger I would consider removing the social media apps from her phone, or monitoring it very closely.”

As a therapist who works with children as well as adults, Louisa is well aware of the impact such imagery can have on youngsters. “For children who are already prone to anxiety or worry, this type of content can be extremely upsetting. Especially at such a young age.”

She says that the video format, which is so much more vivid than static words and images, can be much more scarring as a result: “When we were kids, we may have heard about scary things like suicide, but it would have been a verbal story and the only images of it would have been in our imagination. Children these days experience these things in video form, which is more memorable, more disturbing and more real. I think there is a loss of innocence as a result.

It is a reminder of the unpredictable power of social media, says Louisa: “Unfortunately, social media can give complete strangers access to our children’s minds and thoughts – which is terrifying,” she says.

““We can’t prevent the fact that people have severe and violent mental health issues. But this is another lesson in the need for vigilance when it comes to the safety and protection of our children online.”

How TikTok has reacted
Shock imagery and bait-and-switch content has been a common problem for multiple social networks, but short-form video platform TikTok has come under particular scrutiny in this case partly because of its ‘For you’ vertical scroll, which auto-plays suggested videos based on an algorithm. As the user swipes down, they can be exposed to certain types of content, even if no-one they follow on the site chooses to share or engage with it.
It is estimated that 18 million of TikTok’s daily users are 14 or younger, reports the New York Times (the minimum age for using TikTok is 13).
In this instance, the suicide video has been so widely circulated and disguised within other types of content on the platform that TikTok sent out its own warning to parents on its Twitter platform.
It continues to work to remove the video from its platform completely.
“On Sunday night, clips of a suicide that had been livestreamed on Facebook circulated on other platforms, including TikTok,” a TikTok spokesperson told Gulf News. “Our systems have been automatically detecting and flagging these clips for violating our policies against content that displays, praises, glorifies, or promotes suicide. We are banning accounts that repeatedly try to upload clips, and we appreciate our community members who've reported content and warned others against watching, engaging, or sharing such videos on any platform out of respect for the person and their family.
“We have a zero tolerance policy on child abuse and bullying. TikTok is a platform for those aged 13 and above, and direct messaging is disabled for all accounts under the age of 16. Flagged and suspected abusive behavior is escalated for immediate investigation and action including removing content, terminating accounts, and reporting cases to law enforcement as appropriate."

The problem with kids and social media

Recent studies by the Priory Group have revealed that 92% of parents are of the belief that social media and the internet are having a negative impact on the mental health of young people. “Despite this, children and young people today can feel immense peer pressure to participate in social media – including platforms such as TikTok - if they are not to be excluded from key aspects of their day-to-to-day lives, such as friendship groups, discussions and social activities,” says Tanya Dharamshi, Clinical Director and Counselling Psychologist at Priory Wellbeing Centre, Dubai.

Although the suicide video is a particularly horrific example of the way in which the internet can be unsafe for kids, it’s only one of many instances, says Barry Lee Cummings, Chief Awareness Officer at Beat The Cyber Bully, which aims to keep parents in Dubai up to date with the latest digital changes.

Tanya Dharamshi, Clinical Director and Counselling Psychologist at Priory Wellbeing Centre, Dubai

Tanya Dharamshi, Clinical Director and Counselling Psychologist at Priory Wellbeing Centre, Dubai

“Unfortunately people hiding inappropriate videos in other videos aimed at children happens more than you might think,” says Barry.

“There are also many that aren’t actually hiding it; they are designing and creating children’s-style videos but with adult themes. There are plenty of examples of children’s programs like Peppa Pig or Ben and Holly where the main characters are going around shooting each other, showing a lot of blood and gore. They are then loading them into YouTube and calling it a genuine episode of the program.”

The internet is filled with inappropriate content, says Cummings: “There is no complete protection from it as the algorithms are designed to serve up content that it appears the user wants. The longer our children spend online, the more data is provided about the kind of content they want, and the more the algorithm tries to show them. Then those who seek to do harm only have to create content along those topics and the algorithm can’t differentiate between what that video might actually contain and the title it’s been given.”

The digital world exposes a strange inconsistency in modern parenting, says The Priory’s Tanya Dharamshi: “As parents we are constantly telling our children not to speak to strangers and we put certain rules and regulations in place to ensure their safety and protect them. Yet the internet and social media – in all its various guises – allows our children to access sites which promote gambling, violence and pornography, allow cyberbullying and invade their privacy. The bait-and-switch videos are extremely concerning and just another example highlighting the potential dangers of social media. All have the potential for serious consequences.”

How to keep children safe online

As parents we can monitor what our children and young people are doing online and be judicious about the age at which we give them a smart device and access to social media channels, says Beat The Cyber Bully’s Barry Cummings. The later we can hold off giving our kids such access, the better, he adds:

“It’s why all the social channels have a 13 year and up age limit,” he continues. “Having said that, a 13-year-old is not necessarily any better equipped to deal with seeing something inappropriate and the only way to protect them is to talk to them about what is out there, what damage it can do, and tell them that you are there for them when anything goes wrong.”

There is the danger of inappropriate content on every single channel that they use, adds Cummings: “The best form of protection for young people is fully informed, involved parents. We have to educate ourselves and then, once our knowledge is increased, we can explain to our children how these things work and they are then more likely to spot it ahead of time, or think twice about clicking on something. Here are some practical tips for keeping kids safe online:

Encourage non-digital interactions

“Encourage children to participate in activities away from the digital world,” says Tanya Dharamshi. “Join clubs, play sport, organise movie nights or board games’ nights – anything that gets them out into the fresh air or away from their devices and interacting with like-minded individuals.”

Use parental controls and monitoring software

Technology-wise there are parental controls like Circle, Boomerang or Nischint that allow you to lock down and control where your children are going online and for how long, says Barry Cummings. “There are some free options (think Apple Screentime that comes as part of the iOS) but most are paid as they are expensive to develop and maintain. Also there has to be something on the device in order for monitoring to take place. At the moment, as far as I know, there aren’t consumer products that allow for complete remote monitoring without some sort of install.”

Monitoring software works across age ranges, he says, “and actually the younger they get online the sooner the tools and parameters should be in place. Also the younger they are, the more, just a part of the digital experience, having monitoring software becomes.”

But communication with your child is still key, he adds: “Ideally we should be speaking to our children about what and why we are installing the software, as open communication is really the key to this entire situation.”

Use technology to help you pick strong passwords

Some of the parental-control options, once installed, are hidden and not removable by the child but even those that are, usually require some sort of password protection, “so coming up with codes or passwords your kids don’t know and can’t guess is imperative,” says Cummings. “We recommend using something like www.Lastpass.com for this.”

Have device-free time before bed

“Introduce time limits on screen time, require parental approval for app downloads and ensure ‘device-free’ time throughout the day and at least 60 minutes prior to bedtime,” says Dharamshi.

Create "media-free" zones

Tanya Dharamshi from the Priory advises, “Create ‘media-free’ zones in the house like bedrooms. Always ensure they are not ‘locked-away’ on their devices but use them in the presence of others so you can subtly monitor what sites they’re visiting.”

Remove the search bar on YouTube

Restricting children’s ability to search on YouTube limits what they can get access to, says Cummings. “To do this you initiate Safe Search with Restricted mode; you turn it on in the drop down menu from your account icon. This is easy to turn on and off, but if you want to lock restricted mode for that browser, you sign into your Google account using your username and password, and then sign out again, and YouTube restricted mode can’t be turned off until you log in and turn it off on that browser.”

Get YouTube Kids

“Within YouTube kids you can effectively turn off the search bar in settings as a toggle button. We recommend parents do this and subscribe them to certain channels, so they don’t need to go searching. It’s still not 100% foolproof though, which is why it’s so important for parents to be actively involved, and do additional monitoring.

Install ad blockers

Install ad blockers on your child’s browsers, says Cummings: “This will not allow tempting ads to pop up during their experience,” so they aren’t expose to potentially unsafe material or enticed to click on them.

Never leave phones charging in the bedroom

“The temptation to use during the night or as soon as they wake up is too great,” says Dharamshi.

Download the Beat The Cyber Bully App

“We used to give informative workshops to parents, but since COVID we have developed an app,” says Cummings. “It’s aimed at UAE parents to help deliver all our awareness information to parents directly to their smart device. You get notifications of new content via the app and also email to make sure you stay as up to date as possible - the content is in English but we are putting Arabic subtitles on all the content as well - more info at https://btcb.cobabble.ae.

Tanya Dharamshi, Clinical Director and Counselling Psychologist at Priory Wellbeing Centre, Dubai says:
“As with any disturbing content - whether it’s on social media or news channels - parents need to be open and honest as to what is happening and where relevant, explain what is real and what is imaginary. Younger children in particular will find it difficult to put things into context and this is why it’s so important to protect them as much as possible from disturbing or frightening images, videos and computer games. Encourage your child to talk about what they have seen and to express their fears and respond without judgment. Validate and emphasise how you understand why they are feeling this way and use reassuring language to explain how their fears are acceptable, that they are normal and that they are fully supported.
“If the imagery has caused intense anxiety or is affecting their ability to sleep, let them know that they will get through this situation. Teach your child strategies to help manage his/her fears, identifying that fear is a thought, not reality, and because of this we have control over it. Using tools such as mindfulness, where your child learns what thoughts to engage with and which ones to let float away like a bubble, role-playing a situation where the child takes control and helps banish the character and story writing – these will all help to shift your child’s perspective on the fear.”