Hey, fatso! It was a common jibe heard in school corridors when a plump junior ran into the school bully.
If it were 1990s, the matter would have ended with the junior learning to ignore, cope or emulate.
But in this millennium, the battle rages on in cyberspace. Cooped up under the blanket, the junior evens the score on Facebook by posting his tormentor’s morphed picture. Enough number of likes means he has won the battle before the start of another day.
Of all the risks children face online, cyber bullying or use of social media to embarrass or humiliate others, is most familiar and remains unchallenged. It is also a dangerous territory. Posts uploaded for fun or in retaliation have caused serious damage to the target in the past.
In 2015, a class 12 student of Chhatarpur in Bundelkhand region of Madhya Pradesh allegedly committed suicide by shooting himself. Police probe revealed that Sandeep Sen was upset about a video uploaded on social media that showed him getting being thrashed by some people. Police said he ended his life as he could not bear the humiliation.
According to Teens, Tweens and Technology report 2015 by cyber security firm Intel Security, at least one in every four children surveyed across metro cities said that they had been bullied online. A Parliamentary Standing Committee also acknowledged in its report on cyber crime in 2014 that cyber bullying was more prevalent than other perils of social media.
“One recent high-profile threat is the one posed to children by predatory pedophiles, who conceal their true identity whilst using the Internet to “groom” potential victims. Probably far more common is the online bullying of children by their peers,” it said.
With easy access to internet, bullies are at work at all times and places. A teacher in south Delhi remembers how two girls had a petty fight at the school playground one day. It ended with both pulling each other’s hair. Well, not quite.
“Soon, one of the girls posted a picture of an antiseptic lotion with a caption that read – ‘Thank God I washed my hands with it after touching her.’ We just sat there wondering if we could stop such hate,” she said, while adding teachers are also vulnerable to bullying online through snide remarks live from classrooms. “They simply delete them to get away. But hundreds of people have read those derogations by then.”
Geetanjali Kumar, a psychologist working with schoolchildren in Delhi, calls the danger of cyber bullying a ticking time bomb. “All it takes for children to be on social media is to register with a wrong date of birth. But the sense of power it gives helps children malign others and not be sorry about it,” says Kumar, who is presently counseling at least five children affected by cyber bullying.
Shruti Kalra (name changed), a student, recently posted nasty comments on a picture of a classmate in her new dress on Facebook. Shruti wanted a similar dress, but couldn’t get one as her parents had refused.
“She was so angry that she wrote on her classmate’s post how bad she looked. She felt that if she couldn’t have it, she would ruin it for her too. Parents should watch out for such episodes and address the problem,” says Kumar. “Even for the other kid, what was the need to click selfies and flaunt her dress on social media? But parents themselves do that all the time. Children just follow.”
As threats are invisible offline, parents often do not realize when their children are at risk. But there are symptoms, such as the child becoming reclusive, feeling intimidated, refusing to attend school and unexpectedly spending much more time on social media. Bullying can even lead to stalking online, and children do not realize when they fall into lawlessness.
Though India’s legal framework to protect children online is going forward with legislations, such as National Policy of ICT in Schools, 2012, National Cyber Security Policy, 2013 and Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012, a report on Child Online Protection in India released by UNICEF in September 2016 finds lacunae in the laws.
“Many activities that have been criminalized in other countries, such as sexting and cyber bullying, are not regarded as offences by Indian law. Legal provisions for addressing cyber bullying are lacking. There is a need to develop approaches that do not criminalize children and adolescents for harmful online behaviours,” it recommends.
In many cities, schools and the police have started collaborating to create awareness and keep children in check. Schools in Kolkata, such as Beleghata Deshbandu Girls High School have prohibited use of mobile phones by students. Ballygunge Government High School has been sensitizing parents so that they do not allow their children to use smartphones.
The cyber cell of Jharkhand police has been holding workshops in schools across the state for over a year now, as cases of morphed images and shaming on Facebook have gone up. In a majority of cases, friends and classmates are the culprits, police say.
Kerala government floated a Stop Cyber Crime Army in schools in 2014 to create awareness. A recent study conducted by the state cyber crime department found that around 25% school children exposed to internet face some kind of cyber harm like bullying, stalking, defamation or hacking.
However, police say instances of cyber bullying and stalking go largely unreported as children do not talk about them or schools and parents often end the tiff with a compromise.
“The fear of getting reprimanded or punished for using social media prevents schoolchildren from sharing their problems with parents and teachers. Due to this, a significant number of them end up as vulnerable,” said Dependra Pathak, spokesperson, Delhi Police that has launched Child Safety Awareness Programme and Go To School Initiative-Protecting Children on Internet in Delhi schools.
Around 10 lakh students from 868 government and private schools across Delhi are being trained to navigate the internet safely.
Principals say parents should show an equal concern in this matter as only they can restrict the use of internet at home and on mobile phones.
Meanwhile, schools in Mumbai are teaching cyber etiquette to adolescents as they frequently receive complaints of cyber-bullying. However, a principal from Navi Mumbai urged schools to not be hasty while lodging police complaints. “They are children, it is our job to correct them, not ruin their careers,” she said.