Two incidents of online harassment of girls this month have brought the focus back on the urgent issue of online harassment and blackmailing in UAE.

A 46-year-old Filipino teacher from a school in Al Twar Dubai was caught for sexually harassing an 11-year-old girl, and asking for her indecent pictures on Whatsapp.

A man in Abu Dhabi was caught for blackmailing two sisters after being friends with them on Snapchat. The blackmailer threatened the girls that he will publish their private pictures if they didn’t pay him 6000 AED. The girls paid the amount, but the blackmailing didn’t stop;

The culprits were caught in these incidents, but shockingly, there many other girls who tolerate online harassment without reporting it out of fear. A survey last year claims that one in five UAE girls faces cyber blackmail. The three-month-long survey was conducted by 62 Emirati girl students who talked to girls between 15 and 18 years of age.

“The problem with many young people online is they do not know what the limit is and what the consequences are,” said Dirar Al Falasi, director of Watani Al Emarat Foundation in a report published by The National.

Negative Impact of online harassment

Most of these reports show that girls are more common targets of online harassment and blackmailing compared to boys. However, such incidents can have a deep, negative psychological impact on victims, irrespective of gender. The constant stress of dealing with the harasser, and the fear of being shamed before family and friends can be extremely tough for children to handle.

The case of the 11-year-old girl who was sexually harassed on Whatsapp is a typical example of what kind of mental and physical trauma a victim can go through:

Here are three main behavioral changes that were seen in the girl:

Mental trauma: The girl was enduring the harassment without telling about it to anyone out of fear. This led her to suppress the fear within her, and slip into a depression

Physical side effects: The girls complained of pain in various parts of her body, despite the police saying that she was not physically harassed. This indicates that the girl’s negative mental condition resulted in intense psychosomatic stress. This simply means that the girl’s mental condition was deteriorating her overall health also

Suicidal thoughts: The feeling of helplessness and the depression she was evidently slipping into possibly led the girl to think of this extreme step.  Globally, suicide is the third leading cause of death between in the 10-24 age bracket, according to the World Health Organisation

What to do to stay safe (For kids and parents)

  • Never trust easily: Children and teenagers become easy victims of harassment because they trust easily and share private information and pictures that harassers use later
  • Beware of a stranger: Children should never make friends with strangers online, and never share their cell phone number, email address, and other personal details such as home/school address with anyone outside the home, without parents’ consent. The 11-year-old girl who was sexually harassed had sent a Whatsapp message to his teacher to seek help for a project. This compromised her safety
  • Immediately report an incident: Any incident of harassment should be reported immediately. In both the cases we have mentioned in this article, the harassment was reported/detected only when things started getting out of hand. While victims fear that reporting things will add to their problems, the fact is, the harasser will never stop till that person faces the fear of being reported
  • Observe children closely: Parents should not give their children access to technology and the web without monitoring and guidance. Also, it is very important to consistently observe if children are withdrawing or feeling down due to something. Usually, behavioral changes are the first signs of online harassment
  • Stay updated: Educate yourself about latest online threats such as blackmailing, cyber bullying and hacking so that you can talk to your children about these dangers