Abu Dhabi: The majority of crimes against children today have an online element, even if they do not occur entirely online, experts heard at the ‘Children’s Well-being in a Digital World’ conference in the UAE capital Abu Dhabi on Monday.
This can include sexual exploitation, grooming, scamming, or even using social media or the internet to simply gain access to children, and is alarming because international data has shown that as many as one in three children is asked to do something sexually explicit online.
Parents must therefore take an active interest in their children’s online activities, and be part of their cyber world, officials urged at the forum that was organised by the Emirates Safer Internet Society (eSafe) on the occasion of Safer Internet Day 2023, which is marked across the world on February 6 each year.
Officials also urged residents to report any crime or threat to children on the Ministry’s of Interior’s Hemayati app, which allows for online reporting.
Sheikh Nahyan Bin Mubarak Al Nahyan, UAE Minister of Tolerance and Coexistence, said at the conference: “Children today are digital natives, for they do not see digital technology as an external tool to be mastered or an entity to be explored. Rather, such technology has been fully integrated into their approach to living and learning."
He added: "They cannot imagine life without it because, from their perspective, it has always existed. The increasing integration of technologies into their lives is causing the emergence of new ways of thinking, interacting, and playing. [But] these changes are happening so quickly that many parents are unfamiliar with what is a central part of their children’s lives. Our children are at risk from other children, from deliberate predators, and from unscrupulous business in ways that can be invisible until great harm is done.”
Alternatively, call the Dubai police Al Ameen service toll-free on 8004888, or message it on 4444.
Call the Abu Dhabi Police Aman service toll-free on 8002626, or message on 2828.
Call the Sharjah Police Aman service toll-free on 800151, or message on 7999.
“Parents need to be involved in their children’s cyber life. They don’t have to be technology experts to judge whether a social media conversation is appropriate or healthy for a child, or whether content being viewed is suitable. And parents must understand that appropriate uses of digital technology change and evolve as the child grows up, [so] a teenager and a small child should be having very different experiences online, and parents must implement the necessary limitations and parental controls to ensure that. [They must also] be good role models for their children in the safe use of technology. Parents need to establish this pattern of involvement in their child’s cyber life from the child’s first exposure to technology,” the minister said.
Growing crime rate
Globally, reports of child sexual abuse are on the rise, with the National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children in the United Stated receiving more than 60,000 reports every day of online child sexual abuse. Experts at the Abu Dhabi eSafe conference warned that the UAE, which enjoys one of the highest rates of Internet and smartphone penetration in the world, would be vulnerable to these crimes, which are often committed from afar.
Lieutenant Colonel Abdulrahman Altamimi, director of the UAE Ministry of Interior’s Child Protection Centre, warned of these risks.
“Physical abuse is thankfully not much for an issue in the UAE. But the risk with online crime is that it can happen even if children are at home,” the official said.
Magnitude of crime
While national statistics on online crimes against children were not available, Dr Bushra Al Mulla, director-general at the Family Care Authority, an Abu Dhabi Government entity that responds to families’ needs in the emirate, said 40 per cent of the cases it had registered involving 13,000 individuals in the emirate in its first year of operation involved online harassment.
“This gives an idea of the magnitude of the [problem], and it is one we need to tackle. In fact, solutions must be developed with children involved in the design,” Dr Al Mulla said.
Types of online child abuse
According to Iain Drennan, executive director at WeProtect Global Alliance, an international body that works with the UAE to combat online child abuse, three forms of online child abuse are especially concerning at the moment.
Online grooming sees criminals builds a relationship over time with a child victim in order to exploit or manipulate them. Livestreaming of abuse, on the other hand, sees criminals exploiting children on camera, and is one of the fastest growing forms of crimes against children. Finally, producing and sharing pornographic images of children also affects many, with the exploitative images coming back to haunt and trouble many victims years down the line.
Drennan said international action is necessary to combat online child abuse because of the transnational nature of the crime.
“There is no point worrying about children’s screen time if parents don’t also teach children about the safe use of the online world,” he said.
The UAE regularly urges residents to report online threats to law enforcement authorities, with toll free numbers established by the Dubai Police, Abu Dhabi Police, Sharjah Police, and the Public Prosecution. Dr Altamimi urged greater use of the MoI’s Hemayati app, launched in 2018, through which residents can report any kind of child abuse.
“The UAE is constantly working to improve its resources to tackle all kinds of crime, and is taking the lead in tackling online sexual crimes and abuses against children on a global level through the use of AI. The AI for Safer Children Global Hub is an initiative by the United Nations and the UAE Ministry of Interior to make AI tools available so that countries can tackle these crimes, even if they may not be able to develop or deploy these technologies on their own,” Dr Altamimi added.
How to report online crimes
Report the abuse on the Ministry of Interior’s Hemayati app, available on Google Play Store and iOS App Store.
Alternatively, call the Dubai police Al Ameen service toll-free on 8004888, or message it on 4444. Call the Abu Dhabi Police Aman service toll-free on 8002626, or message on 2828. Call the Sharjah Police Aman service toll-free on 800151, or message on 7999.