An uphill task for parents

Spending more time on virtual platforms has made children vulnerable in more ways than one

Let me begin with a famous quote: “Give a person a fish and you feed them for a day; teach that person to use the Internet and they won't bother you for weeks”.

Here I need not to elaborate the evolution of Internet, as almost every one of us knows this magical, limitless world of Internet. Of course it's been very useful for our way of living, and today most of us rely on the web. But at the same time it has pedaled to a stage where it’s behaving more as a menace than a convenience. And the reason is its growing misuse. This ultimate medium of entertainment, education and information has exposed the browsers to horde of risks.

The most worrying factor is that it has put childhood at stake as the growing use of internet by our children is assuming dangerous dimensions. I have come across several parents with some kind of disgusting Internet stories. One of my acquaintances told me that panic struck him when his nine-year-old stumbled onto a pornographic photo. He told me that he shut the laptop hurriedly and rushed his child outside. In fact, it’s not hard to find scattered tales about terrible things that happen online, most of the time unintentionally at the hands of children.

Let me come to the present scenario. The turmoil unleashed by the outbreak of coronavirus pandemic among other things has loaded the parenting with unprecedented challenges of protecting their children, not only against the direct contact of the virus, but also insulating them against the impact of socio-economic miseries. Before deliberating upon the challenges parenting thrown by covid-19 crisis, let’s first understand that Kashmiri children are accustomed to lasting physical, mental, and emotional harm owing to the violent situation prevailing here for the past few decades. Whether the child is a direct victim or a witness, adverse impact of violence is inevitable. It has been a routine for most of the Kashmiri parents to encounter regressive behavior, anxiety, depression, aggression and conduct problems in their children.

To be precise, parenting has never been a child’s play here. For parents, this is a stressful time as the virus refuses to die. Evidence shows that violence and vulnerability increase for children during periods of school closures associated with health emergencies. In this situation, both parents and children live with increased stress, challenging tolerance and long-term thinking capacity. And, the economic impact of the crisis increases parenting stress and violence against children.

Amid all this stressful time, the situation for parents has been complicated further as the children have been forced to venture into the cyber space to board the platform for online classes. The risks associated with cyber space are huge and don’t even spare vigilant adults, the exposure of children to the world of Internet carries huge concerns. Internet is medium which lures the browsers to explore destinations which carry content leaving negative impact on their minds.

Globally speaking, more than 1.5 billion children and young people have been affected by school closures worldwide. Many of these students are now taking classes as well as socializing more online. Millions of children are now moving increasingly online as their schools continue to remain shut. The unprecedented rise in their screen time has increased risk of harm for them. Today more and more parents are relying on technology and digital solutions to keep their children learning, entertained and connected to the outside world. It’s worth mentioning that not all children have the necessary knowledge, skills and resources to keep themselves safe online.

A UNICEF note in this regard is worth quoting. It says: “Spending more time on virtual platforms has left the children vulnerable to online sexual exploitation and grooming, as predators look to exploit the COVID-19 pandemic. A lack of face-to-face contact with friends has been leading to heightened risk-taking such as sending sexualized images, while increased and unstructured time online may expose children to potentially harmful and violent content as well as greater risk of cyberbullying.”

UNICEF and other world organizations have released a technical note aimed at urging governments, ICT industries, educators and parents to be alert, take urgent measures to mitigate potential risks, and ensure children’s online experiences are safe and positive during COVID-19.

During the course of ongoing pandemic, we have come across media reports where many children, while exploring the fantasy of Internet and being unaware of cyber criminals were harmed. They realized that they have been victimized by a cybercriminal only when the damage was done. When we talk of responsible parenting under this situation, we find the parents having adequate knowledge about the need and safety measures; even they have little time or resources to ensure safety of their children while exploring the Internet.

Many non-governmental organizations while taking note of the online risks for children in India have found that 53% of them in the age group of 8-17 have become victims of cyber bullying. Notably, cyber bullying is an act of harassing or harming a child's psychology, confidence or morale. A cyber-criminal could be a stranger who gets connected to child on social network site. The stranger could persecute or harass a child by making unwarranted comments or posting objectionable content. A person known to the child can bully by resorting to mischievous behavior, using the online channels.

The Global Youth On-Line Behavior Survey conducted by Microsoft has found that most cyber bullying cases were arising out of social media and encounters on Facebook comprised of 60% of these cases. Mobile phones and on-line chat rooms were second and third in the remaining 40% cases. Moreover, many social networking sites do not use or deploy age verification mechanism as a result of which children create fake profiles and are able to access the content which is otherwise objectionable.

Precisely, the internet has become so invasive in the daily lives of our children that they are not less than a skilled manager of their free time, playing computer games and surfing the net. Children on Internet without any surveillance are just like in any other potentially dangerous situation.

In view of the dangers confronting our children while using online channels of communication, more particularly the social media networking sites, there is urgent need to run exclusive awareness programmes about the risks associated. Here the government needs to establish special helplines across the region where parents and children can seek help to fight cyber bullying. The authorities can take up the issues with the social networking platforms and ask them to enhance safety measures, and develop standard moderation policies that are aligned with children’s rights.

Here schools too have a responsibility. They have to put in place safeguarding measures while making students board the online classes. They have a responsibility to run awareness programmes about being safe on Internet and also promote, as well as monitor, good online behaviour.

As far as parents’ role in safeguarding their children against cyber bullying is concerned, they have to ensure updated Internet gadgets for them. “Children’s devices should have the latest software updates and antivirus programs; have open dialogues with children on how and with whom they are communicating online; work with children to establish rules for how, when, and where the internet can be used; be alert to signs of distress in children that may emerge in connection with their online activity, and be familiar with school district policies and local reporting mechanisms and have access to numbers of support helplines and hotline handy,” reads one of the recommendations of the UNICEF on the subject.

(The views are of the author & not the Institution he works for)

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