Keeping the UAE secure starts with educating our children

Students need to be aware of potential online threats, such as cyberbullying, harassment, and scams as more educational activities and social interactions move online

By Tim Wood

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Published: Mon 27 Nov 2023, 7:20 PM

The UAE is on track to building one of the most resilient digital economies in the world. Artificial Intelligence (AI), Generative AI, Machine Learning (ML), and other emerging tech is transforming the workforce by improving productivity and efficiency.

Against this backdrop of accelerated tech adoption, it will be critical to prepare future generations to survive and thrive in a digital future. The UAE Government launched the ‘Centennial 2071’ project last year to equip the nation with the skills required to succeed in a tech-driven world. A key aspect will be to ensure that children – who will be training to be the future leaders of the UAE in 2071 – can safely harness this technology.

This week alone, the UAE’s Cybersecurity Council has mobilised a nation-wide initiative dubbed 'Cyber Defense Day' to train over 120,000 students from more than 520 schools on the importance of safely navigating cyberspace through a gamified training platform.

Digital technology has proved to be a powerful enabler for young children, providing access to knowledge and skills. When used responsibly, it can open up a world of opportunity for young people, equipping them with the tools needed to succeed in a digital world.

According to Unicef, connectivity is a game changer for some of the world’s most marginalised children, helping them fulfil their potential and breaking intergenerational cycles of poverty. Unfortunately, digital technologies also carry innumerable risks.

According to estimates, there are a staggering 4.62 billion social media users globally, of which many are children. In the UAE, teenagers have been found to spend excessive amounts of time on social media, with many simply not getting enough sleep anymore. With 33 per cent of internet users under the age of 18, it has become imperative to educate them about staying safe online.

The Cyber Next 50: Securing the UAE’s 2071 vision report, a joint research paper between the UAE Cybersecurity Council and KPMG Lower Gulf emphasises that the quality of life and happiness is increasingly reliant on the safety of both the physical and digital world where citizens can socialise, work, and play cohesively. If we don’t act urgently to protect children from the dangers of a connected world, we risk leaving them vulnerable to hate speech, bullying, exploitation, and even self-harm. Long-term digital dependency can even lead to anxiety, depression, and physical illness.

Personal information and conduct in digital spaces

Protection of personal information is one of the most critical aspects of building a safe digital space since children are spending more time online every day. This is also giving rise to children’s online access becoming increasingly less supervised. Unknown to their parents, children could be sharing their names, birthdates, addresses, and even sensitive data like login credentials or financial information with complete strangers.

This is where cybersecurity awareness is critical to help protect their personal information from being stolen or misused. A key aspect of cybersecurity is understanding the importance of consent and privacy online. Children should be made aware of how to set privacy settings on their social media accounts, apps, and devices and how to make informed decisions about sharing personal data.

Equally, children need to be aware of potential online threats, such as cyberbullying, harassment, and scams as more educational activities and social interactions move online.

Knowledge of cybersecurity can empower them to recognise and respond to these dangers and take the right steps to prevent and report them to the right channels.

Teaching children about proper online behaviour and ethics is also a crucial part of digital citizenship. Freedom of speech and expression via digital mediums has inspired creativity and learning but has also fuelled hate speech. Children must be taught to respect others' privacy, not engage in harmful activities, and understand the consequences of their online actions.

Creating awareness around emerging online trends

Online challenges have also become a dangerous new trend spreading quickly on the internet and social media. It involves people, mainly children, attempting a specific task or activity, and sharing their experiences online using a hashtag. Challenges can be fun or risky, ranging from dances to stunts. However, some challenges might promote unsafe behaviour, so caution is essential. It is also important to teach children to identify threats.

Schools, parents, and community organisations can collaborate to raise awareness about the risks associated with these online challenges. Integrating digital literacy into education curricula can empower young individuals to navigate online spaces more responsibly, distinguishing between safe and harmful content and recognising potential risks.

The UAE is already driving multiple awareness campaigns aimed at the more vulnerable student community to increase awareness of the risks of online challenges. The Cyber Pulse programme, which has received international recognition, is one such programme. To mark Global Cyber Month in October, the UAE launched targeted training at school students and families, training the nation on cyber security and how to be safe online.

Empowering the youth of tomorrow through cyber awareness

As technology continues to advance, the demand for cybersecurity professionals is only likely to grow. The Cyber Next 50 report also predicts a future where an immersive virtual reality and cyberspace will blur the lines between fiction and reality. Inculcating cyber awareness at a young age in this regard, can spark their interest in this field and prepare them for future career opportunities, even to govern these very challenges.

Teaching children how to evaluate the authenticity of online information, identify phishing attempts, and make informed decisions about the websites, apps, and content they interact with, can empower them with essential skills and knowledge to navigate the digital world safely and contribute to a technology-driven future.

- Tim Wood, is head of cybersecurity at KPMG Lower Gulf.

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