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Dubai: The announcement of a new child digital safety initiative by the UAE Government on Saturday has infused hope in schools and parents who are hard-pressed to find effective ways to check their children from going astray in the digital world.

Just last month, two YouTube videos on suicide were circulated through WhatsApp by students as young as 11, prompting concerned parents to call for action.

While the first was an animation cover version of the song ‘Her Last Words’ by Courtney Parker that addresses topics like depression, self-harm and suicide from a vulnerable girl’s point of view, the second was a short film in which a bullied teenager is seen ending her life to escape from it all.

Though the videos were originally meant to create awareness about suicide with the short film even carrying a disclaimer and calling for viewers’ discretion in watching the film, parents feared the videos could give children the wrong ideas.

Students in at least one school in Dubai were given counselling after the matter was reported to the school’s counsellor, a parent said.

Another said that concerned parents also discussed the need to monitor their children’s WhatsApp accounts in a better way.

“I was shocked to see the kids sharing these videos. One of them actually said she found it very inspiring,” said the mother of an 11-year-old girl.

She said the child was upset after the recent death of a grandparent. “Apparently, her mother had told her that the grandparent had gone to a better world. Perhaps she found the videos fascinating because of that.”

The school, however, said the child later clarified that she did not have any suicidal thoughts. Besides counselling, the school also ran an awareness campaign asking parents and students to be more alert about cyber safety and methods of online bullying.

Dr C.B. Binu, chief psychiatrist and medical director at Al Fasht Medical Centre in Sharjah, said both schools and parents should report such matters to the authorities to prevent the harmful content from influencing a wider group of children.

Such videos can subtly influence children who suffer from anxiety, depression, genetic behavioural disorders etc, Dr Binu said.

“Children who have emotional problems are the main targets. The warnings in such videos only serve to safeguard their makers against any litigation. Children may not be able to understand this,” Dr Binu added. “They can end up seriously harming themselves.”

Meanwhile, another school in Dubai has issued a circular to parents urging them to enhance monitoring of children’s online activity after reports of the infamous Momo game popped up in between popular cartoon videos and other online activities of children.

The principal issued the circular to advise parents to monitor children’s devices and mobile phones and report any malicious programmes.

Parents were reminded that children can’t always differentiate fact from fiction and this can sometimes lead to tragedies

What is the child digital safety initiative?

It is a joint project by the Ministry of Interior and the National programme for Happiness and Well-being that was launched on Emirati Children’s Day on March 15 as part of a series of steps to be undertaken to raise digitally literate generations in the UAE. Targeting 5 to 18-year-olds, it consists of four main sub-initiatives: Interactive children’s camps, a digital well-being portal, training workshops and most importantly, a support platform to answer urgent queries from parents regarding digital safety.

Schools and parents welcome initiative

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Bill Delbrugge, director at Dunecrest American School

“As educators, we welcome this forward-thinking initiative by UAE’s leaders that helps parents ensure the safe and meaningful use of technology for children. By understanding the pros and cons of online life and modelling the responsible use of technology, adults can set a strong foundation for a child’s digital well-being. Schools lead their students to distinguish right from wrong, and to choose to do what is right so they can develop into responsible and courageous citizens. Just as in the real world, applying the values of kindness, trust, empathy and honesty in online behaviour, is more important today than it has ever been. The UAE’s Child Digital Safety initiative provides a great toolset for the wider community to help children evolve into conscientious digital citizens.”

Jim Stearns, deputy principal at Victoria International School of Sharjah

“VISS is delighted that the Child Digital Safety initiative has been launched. We have had digital safety as part of our curriculum for over five years, as we are well aware of the dangers, as well as the benefits of technology. The landscape changes rapidly, with new kinds of social media and other applications that can be misused to target vulnerable groups like children. The four initiatives launched by the ministry will be an excellent addition to the ways in which we support our students, teachers and parents.”

Charanya Sivaraman, mother of two

“The child digital safety programme is an absolute boon for ensuring safe and secure access to digital platforms for students.

The highlight of the initiative is that it will offer a Support Platform to assist parents and teachers regarding digital safety.

This will ensure that our kids are always in a safe environment digitally. The culture of violent online gaming is increasingly hijacking the minds of the young generations. They target the kids emotionally by making use of their innocence and vulnerability.

The virtual gaming world is so designed to suck the kids in like any other addiction. Unfortunately they get too much involved and forget the fact that in digital gaming even after death we can reappear in another level which is otherwise not possible in real life.

The foremost solution that I would suggest is to prepare our kids to be emotionally strong at all places, decide and discard whatever is not necessary for them and most importantly to decide whether to say YES or No when they have to make a choice.”