Muscat: Children should be taught how to identify and stand up to cyberbullies by both parents and teachers, say mental health professionals and tech experts in Oman.
Their advice comes in the wake of instructions to parents on how they can help their child recognise and avoid blackmailers online, by the Gulf Health Council (GHC), a body of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) that deals with spreading awareness about physical and mental health.
Oman is one of the six members of the GCC. The other five are the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain and Kuwait.
How to find out if your child is being blackmailed
“If you wish to find out whether your child is being blackmailed, sit them down and talk to them in a nice manner,” advised the Gulf Health Council (GHC). “Listen to them intently and review what has happened to them so that they do not repeat their actions in future.
“Do not get nervous and try to not make the child feel guilty…do not threaten them either,” added the body. “Report the incident of blackmail to the cybercrime unit in your country and make a note of the platform that was used to blackmail the child.”
In this context, Dr Nuhaila Al Rawahi, an educational psychologist in Oman, said that with technology now an ever-present and growing part of children’s lives, parents need to understand the risks of exposing them to too much technology too soon.
“Parents need to keep (themselves) abreast of preventative and protective strategies,” she said.
“Cyber safety should be taught in schools to children, as cyber bullying and blackmail can jeopardise a young person’s mental health and well-being and have negative consequences on their learning and behaviours. Adults need to be observant of changes in temperament and behaviour of children as this is usually a sign that something is wrong.”
Anuya Phule, a clinical psychotherapist at Hatat Polyclinic, said a child exposed to blackmail could suffer from a range of problems, including post-traumatic stress, anxiety, depression, insomnia and even suicidal thoughts.
“If the child shows distress or a change in behaviour and spends a lot of time in his room, it is okay for parents to check their online activity,” she explained. “Establish ground rules at home so that you can stay connected with your child even when they are online. Keep the doors to their room open so that you have an idea of what’s going on inside. Encourage them to share what they do online.”
Through which platforms can children face electronic blackmail?
The Gulf Health Council noted that electronic blackmailers may be lurking in many parts of the cyber world, reaching out to unsuspecting children through video games and social media platforms.
Blackmail may also take many forms: Emotional blackmail, coercing the child to share compromising photos and videos of them or their family, forcing them to perform unethical tasks or attempting to extract personal information from him.
Blackmailers use these incriminating materials as currency against the child, and exploit them by manipulating their feelings, controlling them, extorting material goods from them or forcing them to cough up money for not exposing them publicly. The GHC added that while children might be targeted online, the blackmailers themselves may not be over the age of 18.
“It is easier, faster and more convenient for blackmailers to disguise their true intentions as offers put up in games and on social platforms,” said Tariq Al Barwani, founder of Knowledge Oman, a tech education and research company. “You can pose as anyone and claim to be from anywhere, so long as you are connected to the web. These days, there are a plethora of tech applications available to both blackmailers and victims.”
“We had a seminar conducted pre-COVID-19, on cyberbullying, which was a great success, as we saw attendance from teaching faculty, government and law enforcement officials,” he added. “We aim to have another awareness event in 2022.”
How to protect your child from blackmail
Parents would do well to check up on their children’s activities and look up the age ratings of the games they play, explained the GHC. Parental control features on devices used by children are also highly recommended, as is educating them about the devices they handle. It is also advised to limit the amount of time children spend online, but parents must explain to them that these caps are being set for their own good.
Children must not share personal photos or videos
Children must not share personal photos or videos, and those of an indecent nature, irrespective of whom they are communicating with. Furthermore, no sensitive data of people at home is to be revealed online.
“As part of their education and awareness sessions, schools need to ensure they define what the important terms mean, and also what they do not mean,” added Dr Nuhaila Al Rawahi, the educational psychologist. “Children need explicit examples of how to respond to situations and also how to avoid such situations.
“The use of interactive methods such as role play can be a very effective way to ensure that they don’t only know what to do, but how to do,” she said. “These campaigns can also be extended to parents as they play an important role in their child’s safety.”