The Online Life of Kids

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…and what cybercrime experts have to say about it

As Karan Johar’s teenybopper flick Student of the Year pauses for an ad break on a TV channel, Bollywood stars Parineeti Chopra and Varun Dhawan appear on the screen to announce their WeChat IDs in a commercial for WeChat, a new Chinese phone messaging app—and rival of Whatsapp—that has just hit the Indian market. In the 30-second ad spot, the two filmstars urge their fans to ‘hang out’ with them. The app allows the exchange of text messages and ‘embellished’ photos, and also lets you send instant voice messages to a circle of friends.

Cybercrime expert Rakshit Tandon, just back from Lucknow after conducting a cybercrime awareness drive for school children in partnership with the UP Police, is gearing up for another round of workshops at some schools in Gurgaon. The WeChat commercial is on his mind. “WeChat is a new fad with kids these days. Then there is SnapChat... [though] Facebook is where it all begins,” he says as he wonders about an 11-year-old school boy he met in Lucknow at one of the sessions. “That kid already has a Facebook account, which is technically [not allowed, since FB only allows users who are 13 or older] and has 200 friends already,” says Tandon, “He is lying about his age and pretends to be a 21-year-old in his alternate universe. Who knows how many friends on his friends’ list are real? He himself isn’t.”

Having conducted over 6,000 school workshops over the past three years, Tandon knows what kids acting older than they are can get up to. “They start pretending they are grown-ups, they comment on pictures like adults [‘hot’ and ‘sexy’ being words in common use],” he says, “and more often than not, land in trouble with some objectionable content shared unknowingly that goes viral online.” Coming back to the example of WeChat, he explains his fears. “We all know that the accounts of stars are monitored and so they will not share information that would harm them, but who is monitoring the accounts of these [underage] users? How many of their friends are real and who knows what is safe?”

Tandon cites the example of a 15-year-old schoolgirl he recently came across. “Some objectionable content was circulating online. When I got into her account—after she gave me her password—I found some images in her folders that [explained what had happened],” he says, “She had been clicking nude pictures of herself and sending them to an older boy in school whom she addressed as ‘bhaiya’, nudging him to react to them. Somebody hacked into her email account and started circulating them online on Facebook… I had to counsel her separately and explain to her the danger of sending such pictures.”

The Delhi High Court is considering ways to tackle the problem of teenagers exposing themselves to online perils without knowing it. One question is of whether the safety and privacy measures offered by web platforms like Google and Facebook are adequate in the context of all the mala fide intent that is apparent in cyberspace.

The reason that social networking is under a judicial lens right now is that a former RSS ideologue has filed a Public Interest Litigation in court, demanding that Western companies like Facebook, which have user bases that run into millions of Indians (FB alone has over 50 million), pay the Indian Government taxes on the revenues they generate in India. This PIL, filed in 2012 by KN Govindacharya, also alleges that online companies like Google and Facebook are in violation of Section 3 of the Indian Majority Act, the Indian Contract Act and the IT Act in allowing minors to open accounts.

While the High Court has directed the Government to look into the question of cybersecurity and asked for a ban on minors from opening accounts on online platforms, Facebook has embarked on a public awareness drive in apparent defence of itself. The social network allows a set of options by which users can choose their privacy settings, and can also report objectionable content or fake profiles, but it admits an inability to verify the bona fides of every profile.

In other words, it is for users to watch out for themselves. However, many users are just not old enough to do that. And most of them seem too busy to bother anyway. According to a survey report titled ‘The Secret Lives of Teens’, done by McAfee last year, Indian teens with FB accounts spend about 86 per cent of their available time on the site. In an age where children are encouraged to go online for movies, music, apps and even homework in certain schools, the question of age and access to online platforms could come back to haunt society.

As three of her friends gather in her apartment in an upscale locality of Gurgaon before heading out for a birthday party closeby, 14-year-old Rhea Goswami is glad she didn’t pay much attention to a party invite on Facebook the week before. It later turned out that the party, held at a local pub in Gurgaon, was raided by the police and several minors (under-18s) were found drinking alcohol and smoking hookahs. Most of them belonged to well-reputed schools. “My friend, who was invited to the party, forwarded the invite,” she says, “We didn’t go… who would convince our parents? And we weren’t interested anyway.”

But such invitations are common on Facebook. “It’s a way to connect with people from school—seniors and class mates. You have to be on Facebook and if you are popular, it’s the number of friends on your list that matters,” says Rhea, a student of Gurgaon’s Heritage School. She joined FB last year, right after her 13th birthday, and goes online mainly to upload pictures and comment on her friends’ FB walls and photos, apart from following her favourite boy band One Direction on Twitter and connecting with others on MySpace. One thing she had wanted to do after opening an FB account was join the ‘The Heritage School Gurgaon Confessions’ page, but her parents have forbidden her from it. This is a page that has members posting all manner of slurs about some schoolkid who happens to be in the line of fire. For example, a recent snipe aimed at a boy in class 10 referred to him as ‘a gay fantasy and a piece of shit’. This page is offensive, but Rhea says that FB ‘bitching’ is not only common but a feature few can resist getting access to.

Rhea says her phone, a Samsung Android, is her best friend these days. She wants a BlackBerry now and is hoping to get one of her mother’s hand-me-downs soon. “I will be on BBM too,” says she, referring to BlackBerry Messenger, the encrypted service that has driven governments worldwide up the wall trying to decrypt. “So far, it’s only Whatsapp.”

Rhea’s friend Yuvraj Chadha, also 14 and a student of Shikshantar School in Gurgaon, claims that his only interest online, apart from reading about phones and mobile technology, is to watch online fights as they happen in real time. “There is no end to the abuses and bitching hurled on the [FB] wall,” he says, “I usually get myself a bucket of popcorn before I settle down to watch one.” He describes one such entertainer, a chat between two girls from school over a boyfriend. “They had hit each other in school in the corridors and then took the fight online, which became very interesting,” he says with a twinkle in his eye. Bad language is an added attraction, he says. A typical fight between two girls often ends in name-calling. ‘You fat and ugly bitch’ is just an example of the sort of language that is in common use online.

Rhea and Yuvraj say they have heard of cyber bullying and people getting into trouble with their photos, but have not got into any trouble themselves so far.

“I sometimes don’t get the big deal everyone makes of this,” says Rhea, “I have my privacy settings, and anyway my parents are on Facebook too.” On one occasion, she recalls, several members of her family, including her father, created a fuss over a picture of hers on Facebook. “I was pouting in it,” she says, “everyone does that.”

Thirteen-year-old Samarth Paul’s Facebook profile proclaims him to be ‘in a relationship’, but he keeps mum when asked about dating online. He has had an account since he was ten; his father opened one for him by faking his age. “I used to play FarmVille on it, and now I have blocked both my parents from it. It’s about trust and minding one’s own business. I don’t interfere with their lives, why should they bother me with mine?” he asks, peering into the Samsung Notebook that he always carries along with his BlackBerry handset.

Yuvraj confesses sheepishly that he leads a double life on Facebook. He has two different accounts: one for his parents and family and another for himself and his friends. “Makes my life simpler,” he says as he wields another handset that has a battery life of seven days. “I am making my own phone,” he says with an air of determination. School bores him. “I have seven secondhand phones to study,” he says, adding that he is in the process of making a version of Zombie Game mapped on Gurgaon’s Galleria market.

The exercise of parental control on the online activity of children is a vexed question. There are limits to how much of it can be monitored. According to the McAfee survey, which sampled 1,500 children across cities like Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore and Hyderabad, nearly 79 per cent of polled parents believe that their children do not access age-inappropriate content. But nearly 61 per cent also claim that their kids are way ahead of them in terms of technology and that they cannot keep up with them.

Many parents believe that playing net-nanny all the time is a bad idea. What matters is mutual trust. “Parenting is not just about being a parent anymore, we have to be friendlier with them and let them be open, as they have an alternative life to resort to,” says Rhea’s mother Trinayni Goswami, a professional headhunter with a consultancy firm. “When Rhea wanted to start Facebook, we let her, but we do keep a ‘gentle’ check on her activities,” she says.

Rhea’s BFF (Best Friend Forever) Srishti Mukherjee does exactly what Trinayni fears. Harrassed by her parents’ constant questions about her Facebook friends and activities, Srishti hardly ever stays on the site. “I let them have the password. They keep blocking various requests I get from boys and other seniors in school,” says the class 9 student of The Shri Ram School, Aravali, in Gurgaon. But she blogs, reads fashion snippets and uses gossip apps, often hiding her iPad beneath a book. “It is always simpler that way,” she says, “[my parents] don’t have to know what I am doing during study hours and they are happy controlling my life on Facebook.”

According to Anindita Mishra, who runs a McAfee-sponsored blog and an account on Twitter that counsels parents on their cyber worries, “Keeping a check on children is a tricky task as always. It has become tougher now because of the elusive online world that has taken over our lives.” A mother of two teenagers and a teacher by profession, she says it is a tightrope to walk, but parents must keep a gentle watch on what kids are doing online.

Mishra mentions a Mumbai incident of two boys being ‘cybernapped’ by an online stranger who befriended them online, asked them for a meeting, and then kidnapped them for a ransom. “Similarly, there are hidden Trojans on popular websites like gaming sites, film and gossip sites and online videos and pictures that replicate your contact list and send inappropriate material through your contacts,” she cautions. “That’s when you find that your account has been hacked. Information and communication are the key.”

Tandon says that it is important for parents to make their children aware of the distinction between private and public spaces. Online, these often blur without children realising it. An online platform that appears private may have hackers snooping around. Privacy loopholes can also be exploited. “It has to be constantly driven into their heads that your online life cannot be similar to your private life,” says the cybercrime expert, “Hence care has to be taken when it comes to sharing pictures and thoughts.”

However, there is no resisting the internet, he adds. “It provides an alternate platform with an opportunity for the use of bad language, sex and venting of anger away from parental control,” he says, “and there is no escaping that fact.”

While the Delhi High Court has directed Facebook to put up a notice saying that users below 13 cannot open an account, India has no specific laws that shield minors from online crimes. The court has asked the Government to look at legislation along the lines of the US Children Online Privacy Protection Act. But in the interim, parents need to acquaint their children with lurking risks.