UAE short film explores dark side of social media in the region

Inspiration can strike in the unlikeliest of places, but it was a family dinner that sparked the idea for Zenofer Fathima’s short film series. At a nearby table was a now-common sight: an entire family on their personal electronic devices. 

“The kids were on an iPad, and each was in their own little world rather than enjoying their quality time together,” she says. “Gadgets have minimised the extent to which we interact with our families and have caused behavioural changes in children. Online games have been in the news recently for causing the deaths of children.”

It struck her there and then, she says, to make parents and the public aware of such issues.

“We did research on how children’s lives have been lost, or how they have acquired behavioural issues as a result of excessive gadget use. Most of these news stories took place in 2018, which makes it all the more relevant.”

In July, Dubai hosted the premiere of Zenofer’s film, ‘The Peril’, under the patronage of Her Highness Sheikha Hend Al Qassemi. The short revolves around a busy businessman father who gives in to his daughter’s wishes while on a holiday so he can have some peace, and because he wants to indulge her – except that things go amiss.

“We live in a time when society is obsessed with gadgets and electronics, so it doesn’t come as a surprise that today’s children are so tech-savvy. Most of them favour their screens over their teddy bears,” says the filmmaker. “Being hooked on innovation and technology has its benefits, but we have to be wary when it concerns children, especially since the ubiquitous presence of these technological devices has made online access for many kids less supervised, and therefore potentially more dangerous.”

The need to protect the vulnerable

Internet access for many children is now more personal and more hazardous, UNICEF revealed late last year, in its first comprehensive report on the well-being of children in the digital space. The Dark Web and cryptocurrencies fuel the worst forms of exploitation and abuse, including trafficking and ‘made to order’ online child sexual abuse, the report said. One in three internet users worldwide is a child, but very little is being done to protect this vulnerable community from the dangers of cyberspace or social media, it added.

Authorities in several countries have warned about recent trends such as the Tide Pod and Keke challenges, and in July, Saudi Arabian officials considered a ban on 47 video games following the deaths of two adolescents in the Blue Whale challenge.

“We parents are role models for our kids, we should aim to spend time with them, in order to prevent heavy gadget use and the consequent online dangers,” Zenofer says. “Excessive use of social media can also jolt one’s self esteem, causing depression and other disorders. Learning to control tech usage is indeed a very important life skill as it keeps one grounded.”

The journalist-turned-filmmaker has been drawn to the intersection of social media and real life before. A previous film, ‘Selfie’, starring the Bollywood actor Mukul Dev, focused on the contemporary trend for self-portraiture and the propensity to share these images on social networking sites.

“What really draws me to film as a medium is the ability to visualize a social message, and I believe that visuals pave the way to conveying a message perfectly.”

Production is currently underway on the next instalment, ‘The Peril 2’, which will premiere in September.

She hopes to soon produce a feature film on a similar theme, she says, but more remains to be done before she can announce it.

“I would want to focus on an array of social messages that affect our generation so that it may help our society to prevent issues from surfacing.”