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Indian teens on social media: Bullying, meeting strangers, lack of privacy are rampant

Indian teens on social media: Bullying, meeting strangers, lack of privacy are rampant

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More and more teens are getting online in India.

It’s a common sight nowadays: Kids playing on an iPad or iPhone. If you have younger cousins, or nieces or nephews, you’re wondering why that eight-year-old has an iPad or worse…why is my ten-year-old niece on Facebook?

Sure, in India, personal gadgets and access to the Internet is still something that only children of a certain class can afford, but these numbers are rising. While parents in India are quick to buy a device or introduce their children to the Internet, when it comes to explaining the risks of the online world, we are far, far behind.

According to a McAfee Intel Security report of Indian tweens (8 to 13) and teens (13-17) in cyberspace, close to 70 percent of kids surveyed spend more than 5 hours on the Internet in a normal week. While desktops are still the most used devices, 36 percent use laptops and 27 percent use smartphones. The sites that are popular: Facebook followed by YouTube and WhatsApp.

But that’s not all. Snapchat, Vine, Pinterest, Tumblr, even shockingly Tinder ( a dating app meant for adults) are proving to be popular platforms amongst Indian teens. Melanie Duca, Consumer Marketing Director at McAfee pointed out, at a discussion held by the company, that where Indian teens and pre-teens are concerned, they are the first ones to get onto the latest social networking sites, but not everything about their online interactions is positive.

Cyber-bullying and risky behaviour

According to Duca, India has the most worrying stats on teen online behaviour. She points out, “53 percent of those surveyed said they had met strangers online in real life, the highest statistic for any other country where this survey was done. Over 51 percent said that they don’t care about having privacy online.” The problem in India was compounded by the fact that teens and pre-teens understood that some of the stuff that they were posting online was risky information (like address, contact information) but went ahead and did it anyway.

If privacy concerns weren’t worrying enough, then cyber-bullying adds another dimension to how Indian teens are interacting on social media. According to the McAfee survey, close to 66 percent of those have had some experience with cyber-bullying, and out of these a whopping 36 percent have been cyber-bullied themselves. The reasons from bullying range from appearance (46 percent), intelligence (45 percent) and religion/race (40 percent).More worryingly the survey found that close to 57 percent of those interviewed had no idea what to do if they were cyber-bullied or harassed. From the numbers, cyber-bullying is alive and thriving in India.

So how does one define cyber-bullying? According to Anandita Mukherjee, a mother who’s been working on the Cyber-bullying issue with McAfee, parents need to understand that cyber-bullying is just an extension of real-life bullying. “Any negative online behaviour is essentially cyber-bullying. Calling each other names on a site, using abusive language, trolling, mocking someone. The category is very broad,” she says.

However, the difference with cyber-bullying is that unlike real-life where it’s usually just one victim and a bully or gang of bullies, in the virtual world, there’s a whole group of spectators. Mean remarks or hurtful comments that would have previously been said face-to-face are posted online and then get shared, liked or read by others, often doubling the humiliation.

Online and self-image

For many teens and pre-teens in India, getting online is also a way of getting social approval. The survey showed that 64 percent tried to “re-invent their online personas by making themselves appear older.” Dr Sunil Mittal, who’s a leading psychologist and has dealt with several cases of cyber-bullying in India, says that the issue of identity crisis can’t be ignored.

“Cyber-bullying affects a child’s self-esteem not just in the cyber world but in the real world as well. We’ve found that children who are more connected, are also often more anxious, more isolated. A large part of the social media is about instant gratification and if that doesn’t happen it leads to instant frustration,” he notes.

According to the survey, children are hoping to get instant rewards such as Facebook Likes or Instagram Likes for a picture. And when they don’t get enough Facebook likes, it can even lead to depression, questioning their self-worth, points out Dr Mittal.

Parents and Technology

While a majority of children are experiencing or even seeing others being bullied online, most of the respondents had no clue how to deal with this. As Duca pointed out from the survey, “Close to 52 percent said that their parents did not care about their online lives and many of them simply didn’t know who to turn to when stalked or harassed.”

It’s the classic Indian parent syndrome, which involves not talking about uncomfortable topics, but this time it has extended to the cyberspace. According to Mukherjee, this is a pressing issue that neither parents nor schools can afford to ignore.

“Very often I hear mothers say I don’t know so much about cyber-stuff. Then parents will say, “oh my kid is so smart, he has already created a Facebook account,” which is subtly encouraging the child to flout rules,” she says. She points out that if schools can teach about computers, then why not include social media behaviour and online safety issue as part of the curriculum as well.

So how should parents deal with cyber-bullying? While it might be tempting to say, take away the technology, that’s not the ideal solution. According to Mukherjee, parents need to teach their kids not to respond to abusive behaviour. “Alert the site, if bullying is taking place. Secure the devices before you give them to your kids. And don’t just say no, because they will find a way to access something that parent explicitly ban.”

On the technological front, Venkat Krishnapur, Vice-President of Engineering-Consumer and Mobile, McAfee India says that parents can’t ignore the fact that children today will be much more skilled at using technology.

“Connectivity has gone up massively. There’s also so much data proliferation, that a skilled attacker can get all the information that is needed in just minutes. You need technology to help with parents deal with this.” he says. He add, “Family protection products, firewalls, are required and while they may not be completely foolproof, parents need to rely on these to keep their kids safe.”

While technology is one aspect, at the end of the day cyber-bullying needs the same seriousness that real-bullying gets. Perhaps it is time that parents and schools in India realise that online bullying exists and that their kids need help. One country that has made note of this is Australia, which now has social media behaviour in its curriculum. In India, such a curriculum is still the stuff of dreams, given that most kids in tier-II and tier-III cities probably don’t have access to daily high-speed Internet.

But India’s Internet user base will increase and the number could go up to 500 million in the coming years and in many cases, teens and pre-teens will be accessing the first ones getting online. In such a scenario, both Indian parents and policy-makers need to ensure that children don’t just have access to technology, but are aware and well-protected against the dangers of the online world.

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