A disturbing news has hit headlines and is making rounds across various countries. A news report by cybersecurity firm McAfee based on a survey across 10 countries including the United States, United Kingdom, Germany, Canada and India, among others found that 85% of Indian children have been cyber-bullied, at a rate well over twice the international average.
“Cyberbullying in India reaches alarming highs as more than 1 in 3 kids face cyber racism, sexual harassment, and threats of physical harm as early as at the age of 10 - making India the number 1 nation for reported cyberbullying in the world,” reveals the McAfee report. The report also reveals that “parents are displaying important gaps of knowledge around cyberbullying but even more concerning, children aren’t considering behaviors like jokes and name-calling harmful online.”
It is worth mentioning that children in India have been found among the youngest to reach mobile maturity. According to some recent global surveys, Indian children between the age of 10-14 appear to go mobile more quickly than nearly all their peers worldwide.
This means India has an early age of mobile maturity. Even as early mobile maturity paves way for getting familiar with technology at an early stage for future benefits, it is simultaneously loaded with higher risk while being online.
When we talk about mobile maturity of children, it doesn’t mean they are mature enough to pick the language of the Internet in the right perspective.
While surfing the world wide web, they encounter unsolicited content and mostly fall prey to such content loaded with entertainment as a means to get them trapped as a victim of bullying.
Most of the time, bullying is brushed aside as a joke. But there is a huge difference between a joke and bullying.
Generally speaking, in the online scenario, we find conversations loaded with a lot of jokes. Sometimes it becomes very hard to pick if someone is just having fun or trying to hurt you. Even if you express displeasure, it will be laughed off with the remarks “just joking.” However, if you feel hurt because of the “joke” and observe people around you, especially strangers, continuously making fun of you, then it is bullying in a true sense.
Words like trolling, cyber harassment, outing/doxing, trickery, flaming etc. have become common forms of online bullying. Even as laws are in place to deal with the offenders, the menace of cyber bullying continues unabated with children as most vulnerable to such acts.
Social media has become the most preferred platform for offenders to harass people in a sustained manner with hurtful content. A lot of embarrassing and humiliating content is uploaded on social media sites disclosing private or sensitive information about someone and that too without the person’s consent.
The act, called outing/doxing, also includes exposing personal content of reputed people in the public domain. Sometimes offenders trick a person to share some confidential information with an assurance that they won’t disclose it in public.
However, once they get access to the confidential information, they immediately share it with others. In many cases, the offenders directly take on their victims with offensive content to engage them in heated virtual arguments.
Now, the report by cybersecurity company McAfee signals that childhood of children is at stake as the growing use of the internet by mobile matured children is assuming dangerous dimensions more than having a positive impact on them.
I have come across several parents of young children with some kind of disgusting Internet stories. 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.
Obviously, today the parents must be somewhat worried. Since kids today prefer internet mode to learn and experiment things, cyber-bullying has emerged as a more realistic threat. Precisely, this internet era is changing into an evil era and McAfee’s latest report endorses it.
Notably, the outbreak of Covid-19 pandemic forced closure of educational institutions for more than a year and students were forced to take online routes to attend virtual classes. Millions of students across the globe were first timers on the online platform and got exposed to cyber bullying at large scale.
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.
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.”
Notably, there is already a major shift in the attitude of children. Earlier it was television as their preferred medium of entertainment. Now it’s mobile and laptops with most of the time online activities where they spend most of their time.
Some time back, a survey found an interesting trend, which is worth quoting even today. Some parents who have stopped their children from having a TV in their bedroom for fear they will watch it too much have justified internet access on the basis that it will help with homework.
But the survey has found children and young teens are more likely to socialize than do homework online. The survey also revealed that for one in three the computer is the single thing they couldn’t live without, compared with a declining number - one in five - who named television.
Today, the computer screen time, has become so invasive in the daily lives of the children, mostly in the age group of 5 to 16 that they are not less than a skilled manager of their free time, juggling technology to fit in on average three to four hours of TV, playing computer games and surfing the net.
Though there is no guaranteed mechanism to remain insulated against cyberbullying, you as a parent can still help your children to be safe while surfing the world wide web.
When we talk about responsible parenting under this situation, we find the parents having inadequate knowledge about the need and safety measures to safeguard their children on the internet. Even they have little time or resources to ensure the safety of their children while exploring the Internet.
However, they have to ensure updated Internet gadgets for their children. “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.
To sum up the issue, children on the Internet without any surveillance and checks and balances are just like in any other potentially dangerous situation.
In view of the dangers confronting children while using online channels of communication, more particularly the social media networking sites, there is an urgent need to run exclusive awareness programmes about the risks associated with Internet surfing for children.
Here the government needs to establish special help lines 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 and safeguarding measures, and develop standard moderation policies that are aligned with children’s rights.
Here schools too have responsibility to run awareness programmes about being safe on the Internet and also promote as well as monitor good online behaviours.
Precisely, all of us can do things together to mitigate the risk of cyber bullying of children. Imparting lessons about how to behave online are inevitable.
(The views are of the author & not the institution he works for)
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author.
The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK.