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ICDL urges social media caution for GCC youth

Regional surge in Web usage demands sensible monitoring of vulnerable users

Ezzo: We must remember that… social media can be abused and exploited by people with malicious intent.
Ezzo: We must remember that… social media can be abused and exploited by people with malicious intent.

The International Computer Driving License (ICDL) GCC Foundation today urged caution among Gulf citizens in sharing personal information online.

Within less than two decades, social media has revolutionised the way people interact with one another and ICDL GCC, an organisation that promotes digital skills and cyber safety across the Gulf region, believes that while the technology is here to stay, users must exercise sound security practices to protect against the growing tide of cyber threats.

Jamil Ezzo, director general, ICDL GCC, said the need to address online safety in using social networking is particularly significant in the Gulf where smartphone and Internet penetration rates are high, and children have access to mobile devices.

"Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, LinkedIn and Tumblr are social media tools that have now become household names and their influence as a communication channel continues to increase," said Ezzo.

"In the Middle East and North Africa, we recently saw how social networking sites can bridge the communication gap. However, we must remember that despite being effective vehicles of social interaction, social media can also be abused and exploited by people with malicious intent."

IDCL GCC cited an Arab Social Media Report published by the Dubai School of Government, which showed Facebook usage in the Arab world has almost tripled in the past two years to reach over 45m as of the end of June 2012. This figure is about 20% higher than the 37.4m recorded in January of the same year. Out of the countries surveyed across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), those in the GCC posted the highest Facebook usage in the region.

The report also noted that youth (those between the ages of 15 and 29) represent the majority or 70% of Facebook users in the region, a number that has been holding steady since April 2011.

Ezzo said the figures point to a widening adoption rate of social media technology among young people. Users, who are often not aware of the security or privacy settings of various social networking sites, are more prone to fall victim to cyber-attacks.

"Facebook has undoubtedly been a major game-changer in the social networking sphere. Globally it is reported to have over 1bn users. According to an independent survey, if Facebook was a country, it would have the world's third largest population, more than twice the size of the United States," Ezzo explained.

"This gives us an idea of how vast the social media community is growing and how potentially dangerous it can be for young users. However, parents can help their children use social websites more safely by first talking to them about why they have to be cautious online, and how they can protect themselves from cyber predators."

Oftentimes, according to Ezzo, many children find it difficult to distinguish between real life and virtual life. However, they use social media - whether to play games, interact with friends and family or post videos and photos - and should understand that the Internet is full of billions of people who can access their personal and private information with just a click of a button.

In a bid to protect children from cyber threats such as addiction, bullying and exploitation, ICDL GCC Foundation has partnered with law enforcement agencies as well as educational and other concerned government organizations across the GCC countries, to visit schools as part of a campaign to raise awareness on the subject amongst teachers and parents.

"We encourage parents to talk to their children about social networking. They can even make this a family affair. By being their children's ‘friends' online, parents can monitor their activities and list of friends while networking," he said.

Most importantly, however, children should be trained to be able to recognise potential threats or messages that make them uncomfortable and to inform their parents whenever this happens.

"Some of the information children post on their social network pages, such as age, can make them vulnerable to scams and cyber-attacks," said Ezzo.

"Parents should also warn them against divulging personal information to strangers, and setting house rules, such as the length of time one can use the Internet, can go a long way in securing your children from the possible dangers of social media.

"Internet and handheld devices have removed all geographic boundaries and conventional discipline. By giving our children unrestricted access to the world for good intention, we are also exposing them to the world's lures and dangers. Hence, protecting them from being exploited is an individual and institutional responsibility, by raising awareness among them on the responsible and safe use of technology.