Caught in a web

If your social media savvy child has suddenly become reclusive, he might be a victim of cyberbullying. Know more about this menace and the ways to overcome it with this article.

By Gokul Chandrasekar  • 10 min read

Caught in a web

The last decade or so has seen a virtual tech invasion in every aspect of our lives. From classroom to curriculum, from exams to summer camps, technology has gotten a lot closer to a child’s life. Unfortunately, this invasion has not spared the nasty practice of bullying. Bully-zones have shifted base from the conventional playground and school corridor to the new-age online medium.

There is a hidden risk for parents. India ranks third in the number of cyberbullying cases reported worldwide, with one in every three teenagers facing the problem. A recent study conducted by Internet security company, McAfee, claims that ‘(50%) of the youth in India have had some experience with cyberbullying.’ Validating this further, a survey conducted by Microsoft Corporation across 25 countries, ranked India third in the number of online bullying cases reported, just below China and Singapore.

The Problem

So where is it that we are going wrong? While isolation from the Internet and social media is never an option, understanding the right age to let your child enter the digital world is crucial. Experts believe there are four strong reasons why cyberbullying is on the rise in India:

Under-age Sign-ups:

Though social media sites like Facebook and Twitter clearly state that only children older than 13 years are allowed to have an account, most children start using them even before they turn 10. While some parents are unaware of these restrictions, others tend to overlook them. A related study, conducted by the industry advocacy body ASSOCHAM (The Associated Chambers of Commerce), confirms this trend. As it states, nearly 73% of children in Tier-I and Tier-II cities in the age-group of 8 to 13 years use Facebook and other social networking sites. "In most of these cases (82%), it is the parents who help children create profiles," says DS Rawat, Secretary-General, ASSOCHAM.

Unrestricted Freedom:

Research indicates that younger children enjoy more freedom with the amount of time they spend on social media. This, according to experts, reflects a lack of understanding among parents on the threats children face on social media.

"Children blindly follow their seniors and peers. Everyone wants to be a part of the ‘cool’ set who know and do the latest things," says Anindita Mishra, Cybermum, McAfee India (Cybermum is an initiative by McAfee to educate parents on different ways to keep their kids safe in the virtual world). "Due to various reasons, parents today buy their tweens smartphones and tablets. These kids already have access to the Internet at a very young age, thanks to the time they spend on their parents’ laptops and phones. Now, with their personal devices, they want to go further. Also, at such a tender age, children are very curious and hasty. They sign up on social media by forging age and creating fake profiles just for fun. This also makes them feel more grown-up and their online popularity gives them a sense of acceptance," she explains.

The Adventurous Trait:

Children are often impulsive and do not understand the long-term implications of their online decisions. They do not realise that this adventurous virtual behaviour gets them into trouble. “They are so naïve that they indulge in risky behaviour without a thought. The irony is that, despite knowing the dangers of the net, and having had some experience of cyberbullying, most of them do not know what to do if they were harassed or bullied online," adds Anindita.

Lack of Legal Mechanism:

Yet another part of the problem is the lack of appropriate legal mechanism to address cyberbullying. “The IT Act, 2000, does not include any provisions relating to prevention/punishment/judicial procedure for crimes like cyberbullying by school students,” says Debarati Halder, advocate and researcher on cyberbullying.

“The IT Act, 2000 mentions only two kinds of offences in this regard:

  • Publishing of information which is obscene (Article 67) and
  • Breach of confidentiality and privacy (Article 72).

The issue of bullying, teasing and hazing are not mentioned properly,” she adds.

Digital wellness curriculum: a game-changer?

So, what can be done to prevent or overcome cyberbullying? Awareness is the game-changer, say experts. Schools, being important stakeholders, can play a major role in preventing bullying, insists Anindita. "Along with Computer Science education, Internet behaviour should be made a part of the curriculum. When children learn with their peers, they pay more heed. Schools should also have a counsellor to help children with Internet-related problems among others," she explains.

To bridge this gap in education, a digital wellness curriculum has been launched in India in collaboration with UNESCO. The curriculum, powered by Intel Education and McAfee, is expected to reach over 1 lakh students by mid-2015 and create awareness on cyberbullying. "The curriculum consists of four modules — cyber wellness, threats to cyber wellness, safety for social media and the road ahead," says Anand Prahlad, Managing Director of McAfee India.

Role of Parents

Like teachers, parents too have an important role to play. Experts like Anand Prahlad believe parents need to update themselves about potential threats and become part of their child’s online experience.

With the digital boom underway, cyberbullying, as a trend, is here to stay. You just need to ensure that it doesn't affect you and your child.

Here’s what you can do

(As explained by Anindita Mishra)

Enlighten: Let your child know that Internet is a privilege. Before giving him access, make him aware of the associated duties and responsibilities.

Stay updated: Know your child’s virtual world.

Tag along: Sign up on the social media platforms that your teen is hooked on to. (after ascertaining such platforms meet the minimum-age criteria). This will help in bridging the gap between your child and you.

Stay Together & calm:  Do not ever panic. These situations can be handled effortlessly.

Secure devices: Use good parental control software and not just any basic anti-virus.

Educate: Teach your child about cyber safety and responsibility. Along with good manners, educate her about cyber etiquette.

Be on the same page: Keep yourself abreast with all that’s happening - new games, social media sites, threats, etc. This will make it easier for your child to confide in you.

Set rules: Implement strict rules including ‘no taking devices to bed’ and ‘no connecting with strangers.’

Boost confidence: Help your child feel secure about his body image. Do not nag him about his looks, academics and attitude.

Build strength: Teach your child to never accept abusive behaviour timidly from anyone. Often, cyberbullying victims quietly accept abuse Help your child develop her strength of character. and reasoning. This will help your child emerge stronger in the face of adversity.

No to counter-attack: Instruct your child not to respond; that’s the best way to counter a bully. Ask your child to keep a record of posts.

Be aware: Ensure you learn the basics of the Internet and social media, for your child’s sake.