Cyber Bullying in Saudi Arabia
Cyberbullying is a critical issue in the world and specifically in Saudi Arabia. Although there has been very little discussion on it, there are stories out there that indicate that the problem of cyberbullying can lead to tragedy. To illustrate, consider the case of Aisha, a 17-year old high school student in Riyadh. She has a crush on a friend of her brother whom she sees from time to time from a distance during family gatherings. One day, she manages to get his mobile number and they began chatting. One day, the young boy, Abdulla, convinces the young lady to send him a picture without her hijab on. As the days go by, the demands become riskier and riskier?. Then Aisha receives a phone call from Abdulla demanding sex and money. Aisha is surprised by the change of tone and tries to protest (Kazarian, 2013). However, Abdulla has incriminating photographs which would cause her harm and bring dishonor to her family.
What follows is an extended period of cyberbullying as Abdullah’s demands become more and more outrageous. One day, Aisha receives messages from three of Abdulla’s friends telling her they had seen her photos. At that point, it is too much for the young lady. The next day she is found by her mother dead having overdosed on painkillers. In a note hidden in her phone, she said she could not take it anymore. The blackmail had become too much and one more victim had succumbed to cyberbullying. The above story might seem like fiction but the pattern has been repeated numerous times around the country. The Saudi community is naturally conservative and issues like these are not spoken off openly. Often, it is only family members who know the reason why the victim committed suicide (NoBullying, 2016). In some cases, the cause of death is completely covered up. However, that does not change the fact that it happens. It only serves to make the problem worse since the perpetrators do not face any sanctions. It is indeed important to catch such cases before they escalate to epidemic proportions.
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The Saudi community, as stated, is quite conservative and one of the rules is that people of different sexes are not allowed to mingle unless they are related. That means that there are often zero points of physical contact between the sexes. Of course, since teens are going to be teens, they seek ways to go around the restrictions society has placed on them. With smartphones, it is much easier to go around the law. That means that more often than not, Saudi youth will communicate deep feelings in the form of a text or private message.
Another cultural barrier is that the community does not allow for discussions on matters of sex except in carefully controlled environments. Therefore, children find that they do not know enough about the issue and they cannot ask their parents for fear of punishment. That naivety means that it becomes easy for someone to take advantage of the child. Due to the lack of exposure, one becomes easy to manipulate. When that manipulation happens, the victim has no one to talk to and must carry the burden on her own. In such cases, cyberbullying is deadlier since there is no other outlet for the rage.
Away from matters of blackmail, Saudi youth also face cyberbullying as an extension of the attitude adopted at most schools. In many schools in the country, it is expected that age has its privileges. When one is older, he or she should get more respect. It creates a culture in schools where bullying of younger children is seen as normal. When that bullying extends to the internet, it becomes even more vicious because there is a higher level of anonymity. In such a situation, the problem might appear normal until it spirals out of control.
The lack of a comprehensive computer education curriculum might also contribute to the high levels of cyberbullying. For example, children do not learn about computer ethics until they are teenagers. Even then, it is just one unit in a maze of units and few pay attention to it. The result is that many Saudis have little appreciation for ethical conduct online. Also, many will not know what to do if they suffer from cyberbullying. Ignorance will make it harder to fight the menace today and in the future.
In addition to the cultural factors, there is also the fact that the penetration of smartphone devices is quite high in the Kingdom. Though the Saudi government is conservative, it is quite liberal in terms of trade. Therefore, one can find almost any brand of electronics in Saudi cities and towns. Saudi Arabia is the most important region, and all the big brands including Apple and Samsung have branches there. Additionally, most Saudi citizens can afford a smart device. The combination of the two factors means that more than 50% of adult Saudis own a smart mobile device (SG, 2017). An internet penetration rate of 93% makes the Kingdom uniquely connected.
In addition to owning the technology, Saudis make excellent use of them. For example, as many as 40% of all active Twitter users in the Arab world are in Saudi Arabia (Gunther & Elareshi, 2016). It is one of the most active countries on the site with the youth being at the forefront. Twitter has become the platform for religious debate, political posturing, and patriotic expression. In addition, the media allows the community to organize events without the need for physical meetings. However, Twitter is also a double-edged sword as it has been used several times as a bullying device in the kingdom.
Another aspect of cyberbullying in the country is the popularity of WhatsApp as a communication platform. The messaging service has one major advantage over its counterparts: end-to-end encryption. That means the message is encrypted at the source and then decrypted at the destination. Not even the company can read the messages sent from phone to phone. That means that it provides a secure form of communication for young people. The tragedy is that it is also the perfect tool for bullies. The information is encrypted and even if someone tries to leak it, one can just delete it. In this way, WhatsApp aids cyberbullies.
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The tragedy of the present situation is that Saudi society is yet to recognize the problem for what it is: a threat to the country’s youth. Young people rely on the internet to communicate because they do not have much freedom of movement in the country. That means that they are very susceptible to bullying since they tend to over-share. It is the community’s role to protect its children before the situation gets worse. The process has to begin with the acknowledgment that there is a problem in the first place.
Once the various stakeholders accept that there is a problem, then an honest interrogation has to begin. It is critical to get to the root of the problem otherwise the country will just be treating the symptoms of the disease (Kazarian, 2013). Once the cultural and technological factors have been identified, then the search for solutions can begin. The ideal situation is to have an entity that protects the citizen’s rights to privacy while at the same time being able to arrest and prosecute cyberbullies (Abokhodair, 2016). Saudi Arabia is a great country and for it to continue being great, it has to nip the cyberbullying problem in the bud.