We have always known that the World Wide Web is a terrifying space. From the vicious rickrolling on Redditt to the lynch mobs on Twitter, we have seen and heard enough to know that when it comes to the social web, nothing is sacred and nobody is safe. As the web exposes the dirty, dangerous, and forbidden desires of our collective depravity, there is a growing concern for the safety of digital natives who come of age online.
Children are taught to identify signs of danger, protect themselves from strangers, and remain alert when alone in public because we know that despite decades of governance, our physical spaces are not free from danger. However, we do not stop children from going out. Instead, we assign signposts and take responsibility to look out for young people who might end up in trouble because of their naiveté or poor judgement.
However, when it comes to the connected web, the youth don’t have the comfort of this buffering adult, who might guide, protect and direct them in difficult situations. The lives of digital natives are so new that most elders in their life do not have a sense of what is happening there. For most digital natives, the foray into the world of connected media is unchartered territory of collective trial and sometimes ruinous error. It puts them in a condition of profound vulnerability.
On the one hand, they are being subjected to incredible risks of bullying, exposure, manipulation and coercion by strangers on the web. On the other hand, they know that their teachers, parents or mentors are going to be useless in giving productive advice. This only gets compounded by the fact that most elders think removing access to these spaces would put an end to the problem — a solution that can lead to such extreme isolation that the young victim would prefer to struggle in that situation rather than go to an elder.
It is from these conditions of digital loneliness that we see the horrors of internet phenomenon like the Blue Whale. Disguised as a game, Blue Whale is not really a game but a finely orchestrated circus of violence that preys upon young teens struggling with depression. An anonymous coordinator, through temptation, coercion, threats and manipulation over 49 days, instigates the player to harm themselves and, on the 50th day, to take their own life and broadcast it online.
Blue Whale has now reportedly claimed victims in more than 21 countries and despite governments, schools and parents on the vigil, it continues to replicate on the darker nodes of the web. We know from the past that attempts at censorship or education are only going to take us so far. Since the Blue Whale reared its head in India, I get asked many times by concerned parents and teachers how they can stop this from happening to their children. Trying to impose bans or take away access is not the way forward. Here are three strategies you could try to let those digital natives in your life know that they are not alone:
Be a part of the digital world. One of the easiest responses that a lot of older people have is that they don’t understand technology. They roll their eyes at the social web and reminisce about how, when they were young, things were better. The web isn’t an additional thing for digital natives — it’s central to their growing up. The more you exclude yourself from it, the more they are going to find it difficult to talk to you about it. An easy way of doing this might be to set up family social time online. Just like your Sunday lunch, you have a Friday evening online time, where you talk, play, interact, share, make videos, pass comments and traverse the digital web together.
Learn with them. It is OK to admit that the digital natives know more about how to Boomerang and what filters to use on Snapchat. You are not competing with them for expertise. Instead, if you put yourself out there as a learner and ask for their advice, you’d be surprised at the nuanced information they might be able to give you.
Troubleshoot together. The internet is essentially a space for tinkering. Most digital natives learn by experimenting and, when things collapse, they learn from each other. The next time you face a problem with your gadget or can’t figure out a functionality, don’t just ask somebody to sort it out for you. Instead sit with the digital native — learn with them and show that you can take control once you have the information at hand.
Nishant Shah is a professor of new media and the co-founder of The Centre for Internet & Society, Bangalore.