When 16-year-old Apoorva (name changed), studying in class 10 in Chennai was found sending her photos to an online friend, her parents were shocked. On confronting her, she told them that she only sent pictures without her face and that she was safe.
In Kochi, an energetic 10-year-old Nitish (name changed), a student of class 5, turned quiet and reclusive, all of a sudden. When the school counsellor was summoned to find out the reason, he opened up and told her that he was being bullied online by a few boys from the same school.
With early exposure to the internet, children and adolescents don’t just have to face the perils of the real world, as the pervasive virtual world has made them all the more vulnerable.
Dr Sangeeta Saksena, co-founder, Enfold Proactive Health Trust, Bengaluru, points out that the content on virtual world is not ephemeral. “Children drawn into it become victims of crime, and sometimes perpetuate the crime. The earlier they are initiated into the conversations of what they should and should not do, it becomes easier to tackle it,” she says.
Taking cognisance of the fact, The Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Amendment Bill, 2019, has extended the categorisation of child porn beyond videos. It includes “photograph, video, digital or computer generated image indistinguishable from an actual child, and image created, adapted, or modified, but appear to depict a child.”
The Centre, late last year, released ‘A Handbook for Adolescents/Students on Cyber Safety’ that creates awareness on threats like cyber bullying, online gaming, email fraud, online transaction fraud and safeguarding social network profiles through a list of dos and don’ts.
According to a Chennai-based study carried out by Manipal University among high school students across schools in the city, a large number (36.9%) of respondents indicated that their friends had experienced cyber-bullying, while only 9.8 per cent admitted to having been cyber-bullied.
A large percentage (46.2%) agreed that they have been made fun of on their social media networking sites. When questioned on whether they had made fun of anyone on their social media networks, 38.5% agreed that they had occasionally made fun of someone on their social media groups, while a small percentage (2.6%) respondents said that they always made fun of someone on their social media groups. This could mean that these young children unwittingly, might have either become victims or the perpetrators of this menace.
According to Seema Lal, a psychologist in Kochi who conducts sessions in schools on cyber safety, curiosity and peer pressure make children an easy target. “There is a lot of pressure on them to play certain video games so that they can discuss them in school. They also believe that in chat rooms since they are not face to face, they are safe. Therefore, we need to teach how them to navigate the cyber world both responsibly and safely,” she said.
Viji Ganesh, a personal safety coach in schools, explains how technology can be a boon and bane. “Gaming consoles can become addictive but it helps children develop certain skills too. Children need to be on social media due to peer pressure and for the much needed social connect. There is a downside to all this which far outweighs the benefits — cyber bullying, exposure to porn content at a very early age and pictures being misused,” she explains.
Digitally ahead, but ill prepared
A popular CBSE school in Chennai, which is technology-driven with a state of art laboratory, has still no talk of the perils that students are exposed to via the internet. A source from the school, admits, “Maybe we should, but we haven’t quite thought about it.”
On the other hand, there are some like the SJT Surana Jain Vidyalaya which have orientation sessions for class 7 students about the need of discretion and why parents and teachers keep a tab on them while they are in the computer lab.
EG Shilbha Sathyakumari, a teacher, says “We have Aware installed in the system so that when they are in the lab, what they are surfing or browsing during projects is under check by the teachers supervising their work. They are also taught why this kind of surveillance is important.”
Talking out of trauma
Meetha (name changed), a class 10 student in Delhi, was devastated when her private pictures were circulated by her classmate. It took intervention by experts from Enfold to mediate between her and the classmate to bring her out of the trauma.
Sumathi Chandraskeharan, a psychologist, explains how it affects the child’s self-esteem. ”Both the perpetrator and the victim have low self-esteem. In the latter’s case, cyber bullying can compound the issue and push them into severe depression,” she says.
She recommends weekly sessions with students to counter the problem. “All schools have counselors, but we need to have a more active engagement with them to ensure that they do not get carried away by social media or the options available on internet. We need to work on their emotional quotient to make them understand what their limits are,” she says.
Lal agrees, and adds that today’s extremely sensitive generation needs to have regular conversations with parents and teachers. “I believe they must be talked to openly. We need to explain with health and science — tell them how pornography can affect them or why they actually do not need so much technology to engage them always. They can rather indulge in outdoor activity.”
Engaging parents has been an important part of the strategy adopted by teachers in Unicent School, Nagole, Hyderabad. Headmistress Padmaja Dharur says during sessions, parents are told that “they need to learn to say ‘No’ to their children and how that shapes their approach towards everything in life, including technology”.
“Students will not understand why something is not permitted, but parents will and they can exercise caution better.”
As a counselor, she also adds that the sessions with children on the subject is nothing less of an investigation. “We need to talk to a group of students and then with each student and then involve parents as well because their phones are used for the purpose.”
Ganesh cautions parents, telling them to be tuned to the children’s world. “Ask any average parent if they know the texting lingo? What do these short forms mean? POS, Wttp, Gnoc and Pir (Parent over shoulder, want to trade pictures, get naked on camera, parents in room). So, parents, teachers, care-takers need to know what their children are up to online. Ignorance is no longer a choice for parents,” she says.
Saksena adds that everybody has a role to play and learn “how to negotiate the world and how not be scared”.