Whether we like it or not, the digital landscape is now our children’s first playground. Express Photo/Kevin D’Souza.
At a recent dinner with friends, the conversation quickly turned to our children. Before the main course could arrive, we had already tucked into the discussion about which school is better from the buffet of institutions on offer. I have had this meaty conversation before in many parts of the world. But this time was different. Instead of talking about student-teacher ratios, we talked about coding.
How many hours a week does your school teach it? How early does it start?
In my Jurassic-aged mind, coding was for nerdy folk in dimly lit cubicles. I couldn’t imagine that my 4-year-old needed to learn to code – she had barely learned to read. Apparently, I was really out of touch. “All our kids need to learn coding now,” was the consensus as the main course arrived, “They’ll be obsolete otherwise.”
Regardless of whether or not we agree on coding as compulsory curriculum, we can all agree that for our children, the digital landscape is now their first playground.
In a recent Indian survey, 81 per cent of children between 8-16 years said that they are active on social network (incidentally, this number is higher than the US and Singapore). It is in this digital playground that our children will make friends, negotiate conflicts and perhaps even discover love. Technology will offer them vast advantages as they bypass borders, collaborate with people around the world and learn languages of countries that we can’t even place on a map. But it will also make them vulnerable in ways that we, as their parents, are largely unequipped to deal with.
Picture this: as the average parent in your thirties or forties, you generally use three social media portals – Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. You might have taken a FB quiz to “guess your mental age” and since you got “22 years”, you may have excitedly downloaded Snapchat to demonstrate how youthful you are. So you Facebook, Insta, Tweet and maybe Snapchat.
Now picture this: your kids live on portals that you have never heard of – Yik Yak, ask.fm, Secret, Whisper. Never heard of them?
These are wildly popular sites on which most pre-teens and teens live out their daily lives; these are the global playgrounds where romances bloom, hearts break, friendships begin and wars are won and lost. Heard of otakus, yuri, catfish? Those are kinds of people that your kid encounters regularly.
Walking through the far corners of the Internet, meeting new people and exploring unchartered territory can be liberating, even thrilling. Heck, it is every teenager’s dream. But sometimes, just sometimes there are monsters in those dark corners.
Catfish (it’s time to learn the term)
Last year, Divya from Bangalore met a girl in Sri Lanka online. The two pre-teens would talk for hours with Divya often racing home from school so that she could get online and talk to her friend. They discussed everything, as friends of that age tend to do – they shared their dreams, fears, crushes, school politics. Months into this friendship, Divya found out that Samantha was a “catfish”, a popular term that is now used for someone who fakes an online identity. Essentially, Samantha – with whom Divya had shared her world for months – wasn’t a real person, she didn’t exist. It was enough to make Divya overdose later that week.
Sexting and Dicpics (it’s truly a loaded gun)
In a recent conversation with 15-year-old Pia from Delhi, we spoke about the omnipotence of the Internet. Pia says she started sexting her boyfriend around Class VIII. “Many kids in my class were doing it” she says almost defensively. I believe her – about a quarter of pre-teens and teens in India say that they share intimate photos and messages online. Pia says that the “game” began innocently – “in the first photo, I was wearing a low-cut shirt and jeans. It seemed normal, we had been dating for 4 months.” Her boyfriend reciprocated and the rules of the game became clear – go a step further with every photo. Within a few days, the photos were viral. “It seemed like there was no one – my family, relatives, teachers – who hadn’t seen those photos” says Pia. Both Pia and her boyfriend underwent months of counselling, but Pia decided to move to Canada in an attempt to escape the aftermath. I asked her if the move had helped. “Not really”, she says “Strangers still send me those images, sometimes they morph them to look even crazier. The internet follows you everywhere.”
Bakul Dua, a clinical psychologist and school counselor says that pre-teens and teens are now “experiment[ing] before they can even understand intimacy and its consequences.” Ms. Dua seems to be on to something – the internet has invented a new normal. A student from South Mumbai says that she and her friends have received “random d**kpics” on Tumblr and Snapchat from the time that they were 11 years old. These photographs are usually accompanied by requests like “Hey, wanna suck my d**k?” When I asked her how she responded to these ‘invitations’, she insisted that she knew how to take care of herself, “I usually tell them “Give me a gun. I’ll blow that, not you.’”
Gun control discussions aside, not everyone is able to respond to bullies in such a militant manner. And the problem extends beyond India. A popular networking site ask.fm has been linked to teenage suicides globally. Jessica Laney, a 16-year-old from the US recently committed suicide after being the victim of vicious bullying on the site with posts including “fat”, “loser” and “kill yourself already”. She did.
There are similar stories from all over the world such as Ciara Pugsley from Ireland and Amanda Todd from Canada, teenagers who faced vicious bullying on ask.fm and went on to kill themselves. Ask.fm has caused widespread turmoil in India with many students describing it as “toxic” and “poisonous”. An elite school in South Mumbai recently banned the site with students facing suspension if they continue to keep their accounts active. While the ban is laudable in its intent, it is ultimately ineffective because the banning of one site simply makes students move to another.
And it is not always in the interest of websites to control bullying. As a recent New York Times Op-Ed noted, “[websites] business models depend on high numbers of users, and they may have no reason to ensure those users behave well.” In fact, scandals and slander sell hard. Monica Lewinsky (remember her!) says that that she was the first person whose “global humiliation was driven by the Internet”. Lewinsky was 22 when the scandal broke and now, at 40, she is at the forefront of a campaign to make the Internet a more humane place. This campaign is asking some valid questions; when does this ‘culture of humiliation’ become too much? And how do we support the Internet’s youngest users – our children – to filter through this smorgasbord of anonymous cruel posts, whispers, yiks, tweets, pokes and torment?
Some of the answers are coming from the kids themselves. Trisha Prabhu, a 14-year-old in the US understood the severity of the cyber bullying pandemic after watching reports of teenagers committing suicide because of cyberbullying. Her App notifies a user before they can post a potentially offensive or bullying message and asks if they would like to “rethink” their post. It is a simple solution, but an effective one. Dr Shikha Singh, a psychologist, says the teenage brain is still “under construction especially in areas related to judgment and control” and this App makes teenagers think before they can impulsively push the button.
This is a step in the right direction but more help is needed before the pandemic affects more children. As adults, we need to push for change in three areas – corporate, legal and educational. First, we must demand that companies be digitally responsible in the same way that they are ecologically and socially responsible. Facebook, Reddit and Twitter have announced that they will ban revenge porn on their sites. Google states that they will honor requests of victims of revenge porn and remove the sexually explicit images from Google Search results. But we need more.
Second, we need to come up with sensible laws to prevent cyber bullying especially for minors since many cyber crimes in India currently exist in regulatory vacuums. And third, we need our schools to be current and incorporate cyber safety as essential curriculum. Not as some optional lecture given from an outdated manual but from experts who understand the severity of the situation. The world has changed and our education system must reflect that.
But perhaps, most importantly, it’s time for us parents to start doing homework ourselves and this is one difficult assignment. We are the first parents to be raising an entirely digital generation and there are no guide books, no maps and no ancient wisdom to rely on. This is unprecedented parenting, but we have no choice but to measure up. And with every day that passes, the gap widens – we become more out of touch and our kids become more plugged in. We have to fill that gap if we have any hope of supporting our children – their lives may depend on it. The kids aren’t the only ones who need coding classes.
Oh, and here’s another PSA: if you’ve been hearing your kids say they want to “Netflix and chill”, they aren’t about to watch movies!