The first message 14-year-old Ruhi received on her new social media account was about her long, glossy ponytail, worthy of being on TV screens. And the last message she received on the same account called her “a slut, just like your mother”. This was three weeks ago, and Ruhi still doesn’t know who sent it. After all, it was on Sarahah, an application that allows users to send messages anonymously, and has taken social media by storm.
Ten days ago, Rakshit Tandon, a cyber security expert, got a disturbing phone call from a 13-year-old boy, who confided in him about “death threats directed towards his parents by strangers in a chat room” after the boy initially showed interest in the ‘Blue Whale challenge’.
The teenagers are among a growing number of children at the receiving end of cyber bullying — defined by a national advisory on cyber crime against children as “acts of harassment, embarrassment, taunting, insulting or threatening behaviour towards a victim by using internet, email or other electronic communication devices”.
Parents, teachers and councillors The Indian Express spoke to suggested that the more a teenager’s social media presence — on Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat — the more likely he is to face cyber bullying. The ‘bullying’ could range from extreme incidents of photos being morphed and identity theft to seemingly innocuous comments meant to body-shame teens.
“One tends to get more attracted to negativity during adolescence… To come across self-destructive games such as the Blue Whale challenge during such a time can be harmful,” said child psychologist Shiwani Nirwal.
On Wednesday, the government directed internet giants Google, Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, Microsoft and Yahoo to remove any links to the Blue Whale challenge. In a letter to these companies, the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology wrote, “Instances of children committing suicide while (trying) Blue Whale challenge (sic) have been reported in India… You are hereby requested to ensure that any such link of this deadly game in its own name or similar game is immediately removed from your platform.”
Here’s where it gets tricky. Tandon, a cyber security expert since 2008, explained: “It’s not an app or a website. It’s a step-by-step death game, a challenge that strangers give to children on private chat rooms. How can you curb this? It’s not possible.” At a recent session he held with schoolchildren in Jaipur, many queries were about the suicide challenge and Sarahah, he said.
Teenagers also shared how ‘bullies’ sought to exploit their insecurities. For instance, Pakhi, 13, recalled how “everyone was laughing at me last winter”.
On a Facebook group started by some batchmates, modelled around the show Gossip Girl, a classmate had posted a morphed photo of Pakhi. “They morphed my face on top of a plump, hairy woman’s body, and the comments under it were very mean,” said Pakhi who, eight months after the incident, is still seeing a therapist for depression.
Unable to take the taunts, many kids resort to staying away from school, parents said. “Children, when bullied like this, usually come up with excuses to miss school… These are the red flags parents need to watch out for. Apps such as Sarahah empower bullies,” said Nirwal.
Tia, a Class VIII student in Gurgaon, said she posts only “black-and-white photos” as this “hides the pimples”. “Otherwise people comment saying how ugly the pimples look. That’s why I am careful — and most popular on Instagram from my batch.”
Read: What is the Blue Whale Challenge?
But while teachers and councillors pointed to a spike in cases of cyber bullying, the number of complaints received by police remains sparse — pointing to an unwillingness among parents to take legal recourse. “We hardly receive complaints of kids being victims or perpetrators. In the last two years, three cases have been registered,” said Anyesh Roy, DCP, Cyber Crime.
Tandon painted a far more alarming picture: “This problem has existed since the early 2000s, when Orkut and Hi5 were around… Then came Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat. But what led to the explosion was 3G and 4G. The problem affects kids across India, whether in a private school or a government one.”
(Names of students have been changed to protect their identity)