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Cyber Bullies

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The new adolescent terror in India and how to stop it

Sharanya was a happy-go-lucky, cheerful girl until she read a few WhatsApp messages on her best friend’s phone. In between misspelt text and plenty of emoticons, there were some “disgusting things” written about her, she recalls. As she scrolled up further in search of her name in the message trail of the group, which included her closest circle of classmates at a prestigious school in Gurgaon, she was shocked to see the words used to describe her. “They were cruel and even my best friend ditched me. I think she left [the handset] unattended on purpose when I used her room so that I would read those awful texts,” she says bitterly. “All of a sudden, I lost it. I thought such things happened only to others,” she says, seated on a couch in the living room of her South Delhi home, with her parents dropping in frequently to check on their daughter, who, three years after she discovered those ‘disclosures’ at a sleepover, is ready to talk about the traumatic experience.

A ‘sleepover’ is an urban teenage practice that involves staying overnight at a friend’s place. That night, well past 10 pm, Sharanya made an excuse about homework—her initial impulse was to break her friend’s phone but she held back her anger—and left for home in an auto rickshaw to spend a sleepless night. She also wondered why her friend didn’t insist that she stay back, since it was quite late and unsafe for a 14-year-old girl to travel unaccompanied in Delhi. The next day, she feigned illness and didn’t go to school. A week later, her parents called up her school counsellor because they were worried about her: she had stopped talking and had hardly slept a wink. “It took me several months of counselling to overcome the shock and humiliation. I was the butt of jokes of the entire class because of my body odour,” says Sharanya, who struggled with academics, barely getting enough marks to pass that year and the next. Now in Class XI in the same school, she is proud that she “didn’t just give up”, and adds, “I have learnt to find strength within myself. I accept myself and I don’t care so much about what others think.”

Mandar, a 17-year-old student from a central Mumbai school, was less lucky. After being made fun of relentlessly by his classmates in a WhatsApp group for his accent—he had shifted a year earlier from Bhubaneswar—he jumped off his second-floor home. Thankfully, he survived, but his parents had to shift his school, where he had begun to lag far behind others on academic performance. He had been a promising student until then. While he refuses to talk about it, his father Pankaj says his son has “lost confidence in everything. He is no longer the same.”

Even parents who are aware of the dangers prefer to offer pieces of advice and not enquire how their children spend time online

In another school in central Mumbai, Amita, a 16-year-old, attempted suicide after a male classmate used a picture of hers at a party—taken while she was changing her clothes for a dance item—to blackmail her into having sex with him. “This boy sent the girl her picture on Facebook Messenger and threatened to [make it] public. Such incidents can mar the lives of students, especially girls, forever,” says one of the girl’s teachers who doesn’t wish to identify herself to avoid revealing the identity of the school.

“Not only has bullying among students gone cyber, the incidence of victims getting hospitalised or attempting suicide has gone up rapidly in India,” admits a senior member of the faculty of a school in Delhi. For her part, Rachel Joseph, a teacher at The Shri Ram School, Gurgaon, says that the school holds awareness programmes and has adopted safety measures to combat this phenomenon sweeping urban schools in India and triggering manic depression and other disorders among teenagers—cyberbullying.

In a recent global survey, a worrying number of Indian teenagers were found to bully classmates and others in their age group. The study reveals that the number of those who admit to bullying online is higher in India than in countries such as the US, Singapore and Australia. Internet interactivity among them is also highly pronounced here. Intel Security’s ‘Teens, Tweens and Technology Study 2015’ showed that 81 per cent of Indian respondents aged between eight and 16 were active on social media networks. According to reports, as many as 52 per cent of Indian minors confirmed that they had bullied people over social media. “Cyberbullying is a fast-growing trend that Indian parents and educators can’t afford to ignore,” Melanie Duca, marketing director, consumer-Asia Pacific at Intel Security, told reporters.

According to a Union HRD Ministry official who asks not to be named because he is not authorised to speak to the media, the sharing of MMS clips through cellphones and various phone- related crimes had been in vogue as early as the 2000s. “However, things have gone cyber with the rapid increase in use of social networks among teenagers. Though most social networks have an age cap for registering, it is easy to beat such conditions. WhatsApp, Viber, Facebook and such platforms are being zealously used for the purpose of bullying,” he says, emphasising that while it was once easy to implement rules against ‘physical ragging’, ‘cyber ragging’ can take place anytime and anywhere. “Schools alone cannot do anything about it,” he notes, “What is more important are awareness programmes.” The official refutes claims by NGOs that the Government is not concerned about the growing menace.

Dr Kushal Jain, a psychiatrist at Delhi’s Vimhans Hospital, says students often shy away from taking recourse to medical help because cyberbullying is seen more as a social problem than a mental health issue. Prabhakar Sarma, a Chennai-based counsellor for children, says most parents try to “bury” the psychological problems of their children within the four walls of their homes. Sociologists and human rights lawyers say that in India, children are at threat from several quarters, from rape rings (syndicates that target girls) to sadistic classmates, yet talking about it openly and reaching out for medical help to cope is seen as a disgrace. Scholars such as Diane M Quinn and Valerie Earnshaw have studied these trends. According to them, people hide identities that are socially devalued and negatively stereotyped. Therefore, it is critical to understand how ‘concealable stigmatized identities’— as they call them—affect psychological well-being.

It was these reports—not just the alarming levels of cyberbullying here but also the social stigma that complicates efforts to address a victim’s trauma—that brought Parry Aftab to India recently. Aftab, a US-based lawyer and internet safety expert, is the founder of WiredSafety, an organisation that aims to protect people from online perils. She has worked in the internet security space and currently operates through her corps of unpaid volunteers in 76 countries. Apart from the US, WiredSafety has extensive operations in the UK, Canada, Mexico, Spain, Ireland, Singapore, Hong Kong, Australia, Italy and Bermuda. “Considering the gravity of the situation, we are in the process of setting up shop in India,” Aftab tells Open, “That is the purpose of my visit.”

Aftab has written volumes on internet safety, especially of teenagers. She was inspired to take up the mission after she chanced upon an image of a toddler being raped. “It is a long story,” she says, reluctant to divulge details. Having worked worldwide to combat internet crimes against children as well as others, she is on the ball about the added challenge that India poses. Given the premium placed on ‘reputation’ and sexual conservatism, she observes, reputational attacks and ‘sextortion’ threats are especially pernicious in this country. In Andhra Pradesh recently, a teenager faced sextortion threats and her parents had to pay a huge sum as hush money. A senior police officer based in Kerala says that cyberspace is used by teenagers to humiliate their peers. “Believe me, both boys and girls are equally vicious,” he says, “While boys try to take photos of girls in compromising positions at parties, girls put up pictures of boys flirting with the girlfriends of their best friends, etcetera, to incite boys to fight each other.”

The number of teens bullying classmates was found to be higher in India than in countries such as the US, Singapore and Australia

The consumption of liquor and drugs at an early age only muddles the situation up further. Some months ago, Class XI students of a renowned school threw a ‘conti’ (short for continuation) party at one of Delhi’s farm houses for outgoing Class XII students. It was a ‘rave party’. Drugs and liquor flowed freely. One of those who attended it says even cocaine was available, besides the regular ‘stuff’—weed and hash. (‘Weed’ refers to dried leaves and stems of the cannabis sativa plant, while ‘hash’—short for hashish—is a dark slab of a thickened paste derived from it.) “A girl took photos of a guy on a high after smoking weed making out with another guy’s steady girlfriend. Actually, we don’t know whether they were just hugging or whether it was something else because everyone was so high, but the photograph definitely created a storm on our WhatsApp group,” says this boy, who is now pursuing a BA Honours degree at Delhi University. All hell broke loose after that, he recalls. School administrations have no control over privately held ‘conti’ parties, though they often discourage parents from letting their wards attend such events.

Ironically, many parents in urban India have no clue about what their children do online. Except in the case of parents who are on especially friendly terms with their children, most others find out about their child being a victim of cyberbullying only after it goes out of hand. Reassuring teens that being bullied is not their fault is one way to make them confide in adults at home about their online activity—be it Instagram, Snapchat, Skype or any other app—notes Aftab.

Online relationships between teens could be meaningful and mutually fulfilling, but the risks of victimisation are high as well, say teachers who spoke to Open. Lack of awareness about a teen’s online behaviour is a crucial gap that has to be filled to ensure online wellness, Aftab adds. The target group of her proposed work in India includes parents and caregivers, family members, educators, school administrators, government policymakers, law enforcers, judges, media, digital industry members, entertainers, wellness professionals and NGOs focused on the issue, apart from the youth themselves.

Sociologists and NGOs that have worked among teens in various parts of India say that parents often don’t talk to their children about what they do on the internet. Even those ones who are aware of the dangers prefer to occasionally offer pieces of advice and not enquire how their kids spend time online. Vyshali Pandey, a homemaker from Ahmedabad who has two daughters aged 20 and 16, says that she only gives them ‘pointers’ on how to behave on the net. “Children do all sorts of things online. All I do is offer words of caution about the potential dangers that lurk in cyberspace,” she says.

Trisha Prabhu created the ReThink app that stops cyberbullying at its source, ‘before the bullying occurs, before the damage is done’

Sonali Sha, a techie from Bengaluru, is a single mother who, on the other hand, says she knows everything about her 15-year-old son’s life. “We are like friends and he tells me everything he does online—as of now, that is. I think he would behave like a mature person in the future as well. He knows where to draw the line,” she says confidently.

HOWEVER, CYBERSPACE IS a minefield and teenagers— despite the great expectations of their parents—are not always able to draw the line. When it comes to relationships between teens, whatever their sexual orientation, there is a huge burden that comes from the need to respond quickly to messages, thanks to technology. Unlike in the past, there isn’t much time to contemplate how to take a relationship forward. Breakups are far more common than what adults imagine. And the bitterness stays, which sometimes leads to cyberbullying and shaming attempts through the misuse of photos, past comments, and so on. From the internet to MMS to smartphone apps, we have come a long way. This is the world of Tumblr and Instagram and a bevy of other platforms online. “Grownups will never understand what today’s teenagers go through,” insists Vishal, a Class XII student of a prestigious school in Bengaluru.

Adults may never entirely be able to grasp the teen spirit of the times, no doubt. But they could get to know their young ones better, or learn about the traps on their way. Aftab, after having worked with teens for decades, knows it only too well. Says she, “Mobile technologies are designed for impulsive use. This leads to impulsive abuse as well. Taking negative pictures, videos, saying things that a cooler brain may not, all are a problem. It also means easier and direct access 24x7x365 to targets of cyberbullying.” After all, the teenage years can be the most traumatic period of one’s life even if one leads a happy and healthy life later. Aftab says it is here that she could help schools and governments with her expertise. “We cooperate with everyone cooperating with us. We do not accept government funding in the US. We advise governments elsewhere, industry, NGOs, schools and the UN,” she says. According to her, the scariest potholes online for teenagers are in the form of anonymous social media apps and unpoliced sites. A government official who works in combating cyber crime concedes that ‘intensive’ awareness programmes are in order.

Among unpoliced sites, one that earned global notoriety was, a Latvian entity that has a user base of millions and is available in more than 50 languages. If a teen has a profile on the site, anonymous people can ask questions and even harass the person with the account. It continues to be hugely popular in the West as well as in India. It was blamed for the suicides of seven teenagers in mid-July, and Time magazine then carried an article on the company. A section of internet experts were of the view that was targeted for being a non-Western website. However, there is no doubt that the site enables cyberbullying, especially because it lets people ask nasty questions anonymously. According to a report in Life Science, the deaths of teens who had been subject to abuse on the site prompted (which was acquired by later) to launch new safety efforts. Twitter, likewise, announced plans in April 2014 to filter out abusive tweets and suspend bullies.

But then, taking action is easier said than done. “The problem is that most children don’t know how to block those who make atrocious comments and to stay away from websites that offer scope for such blind criticism and judging. But then there is this case of peer pressure that forces them to be there,” the HRD Ministry official offers, explaining why teens often suffer cyberbullying in silence. “Secrecy is also a major factor here. Students who are seen as ‘sneaking’ on others to teachers or parents are often ostracised and subjected to jeers,” he adds. In some schools of Delhi, there are gangs that “expect members to be very loyal to the group and so if any comment within gets leaked online to others, they make life hell for the member responsible for that”, says a Class X student of a premier school in South Delhi. These gangs operate in groups online and target others, and in the process contribute to organised cyberbullying. This student, however, is not sure whether this kind of bullying is more dangerous than the physical sort in school.

A watershed study, titled ‘An Examination of Cyber-bullying and Social Media Use in Teens: Prevalence, Attitudes and Behaviors’ led by Professor Martha Mendez-Baldwin, a psychologist at Manhattan College, US, offers the answer. The paper argues, ‘Even though cyberbullying is not more harmful than traditional bullying it is still a big problem in society. The Internet gives bullies more of a chance to harass their victims wherever they go.’ Several researchers have also linked cyberbullying—because it is round-the-clock—to greater chances of depression once teenaged victims become adults, compared with traditional bullying. This is a scourge that countries have to battle on a priority basis, besides rampant sexual predation on teens by adults, says Aftab. In fact, even parents as powerful as Prince William, the Duke of Cambridge, is anxious about what cyberbullying could do to his children. He has launched a task force to address the problem that typically results in teenagers developing eating disorders and suicidal thoughts. According to a report in The Daily Telegraph, Prince William is working with TalkTalk, Facebook and others to combat online bullying through the Royal Foundation Taskforce.

Now, teenagers could be right in their contention that adults know nothing about the challenges they face today. As a generation driven to challenge the values and priorities of preceding ones, they also have their pride. But they still need help. ReThink is an app designed for teens to stay safe online. According to the official website of its inventor Trisha Prabhu, a 15-year-old Indian American studying at Neuqua Valley High School in Naperville, Illinois, it offers an effective way to stop cyberbullying. ‘Deeply moved by the silent pandemic of cyberbullying and passionate to stop it in adolescents, Trisha created the patented technology product “ReThink” that stops cyberbullying at the source, before the bullying occurs, before the damage is done! Her research has found that with “ReThink”, adolescents change their mind 93 per cent of the time and decide not to post an offensive message,’ says the website. Trisha was inspired to work on this project after the suicide of a Florida girl who had been bullied.

Once you download the free ReThink app, it alerts you to the impropriety of a message you are about to send, and acts as a gatekeeper for both the perpetrator and the victim. Its warning is pithy: ‘This message may be hurtful to others. Are you sure you want to post this message?’ That is in line with the mission Aftab has set out on, too: cyber wellness. This is all about making the use of digital innovations harmonious for our collective well being.

It is a lofty goal, and considering the ruthless competition among teenagers in cyberspace, it will not work unless all the stakeholders—teens, their parents, their educational institutions and the media environment—do their bit.

(Some names have been changed)