Today, one in three Internet users in the world is a child, making children more susceptible to the dangers lurking in the dark corners of the Web. But with no fixed regulatory mechanism to protect children from online dangers, how prepared are we to prevent their abuse? Smitha Verma finds out
Meera Sood (name changed) was in for a shock when her sister informed her about a Facebook friend request she had received. It was from Sood’s nine-year-old daughter. Unknown to her, the child had created a Facebook account using her father’s iPad and had sent out friend requests to family members and school friends. “I was shocked. I couldn’t figure out how a class IV student could create a Facebook account,” says Sood. The 38-year-old media professional deleted her daughter’s account and counselled her about social media. “I flagged Facebook too, but I am not sure if it has any strict guidelines to restrict children,” she says. As it stands, Facebook dictates that members be at least 13 years old before setting up an account. But there are no measures in place to check if the member is divulging correct details, as was evident in the nine-year-old’s case. Sood may have been lucky in curbing her daughter’s online activity at the right time, but indiscriminate and incorrect use of the Internet continues. “It’s not possible to cut off technology completely from a child’s life. They check their school worksheets online, share homework and discuss study material on social network groups and messaging apps. But now we monitor our daughter’s online activity. She has also been apprised of the safe use of the Internet,” Sood says.
As per a December 2017 Unicef report, one in three Internet users in the world is a child. The report, titled The State of the World’s Children 2017: Children in a Digital World, takes a comprehensive look at how technology is affecting children’s lives, identifying dangers, as well as opportunities. It argues that governments and the private sector have not kept up with the pace of change, exposing children to new risks and harms, and leaving millions of the most disadvantaged children behind. “We don’t have any India-specific figures, but looking at the Internet use and smartphone penetration in the country, the figures would be more or less similar for India too,” says Yasmin Ali Haque, the Unicef representative in India. As per the report, around 71% children worldwide are online and this makes them more susceptible to the dangers lurking in the dark corners of the Internet. The numbers are alarming closer home too. As per the study, Teens, Tweens and Technology Research, conducted by Intel Security in 2015, around 81% of Indian children aged eight to 16 years are active on social media networks, and about 22% of them are bullied online. “There are various kinds of issues children may face, from sexual abuse and addiction to being exposed to inappropriate/upsetting content, cyberbullying, financial fraud, identity theft and blackmail,” says Siddharth Pillai, co-director of Aarambh, India’s first online resource portal on child sexual abuse and exploitation.
In a country where 800 million people will be using the Internet by 2020, the online safety of children becomes more crucial than ever. “While we need to embrace technology, which cuts across global divide, we also need to acknowledge that there are risks. We need to have stricter guidelines and policies in place to ensure children’s safety,” says Haque.
As per online safety advisory website Knowthenet, Facebook tops the list of sites that children sign up on under age, with 52% of eight- to 16-year-olds worldwide admitting that they had ignored the official age limit. The Social Age report, published by the website in 2014, showed that WhatsApp was being used by 40% of these eight- to 16-year-olds and Snapchat by 11%. The ubiquitous presence of mobile devices, the Unicef report notes, has made online access for many children less supervised and potentially more dangerous. “The Internet was designed for adults, but it’s increasingly being used by children and young people. So digital policies, practices and products should reflect children’s needs, perspectives and voices,” said Unicef executive director Anthony Lake at the launch of the report last year.
There are several reasons why children turn to the Internet, more specifically, social media sites. One is to strengthen friendships and find new friends. As per the Unicef report, the role of social networking in expanding friendships can be seen in countries as diverse as Egypt, India, Indonesia, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, where more than 90% of children using mobiles reported that social networking strengthens relationships with close friends. “It’s peer pressure. When I reprimanded my daughter, she told me several of her friends were on Facebook,” says Sood. But these platforms also become venues of conflict and peer pressure, where adolescents feel the need to post attractive content to garner more likes. Addiction to gaming is another reason children turn to the Net. As per a study conducted among 200 adolescents (13- to 18-year-olds living in Bengaluru) by the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS), addictive use of gaming was found in 39 adolescents (19.5%); addictive use of the cellphone was present in 31 adolescents (15.5%); and addictive use of the Internet was found in 36 (18%).
These are alarming figures. What’s more worrying is the fact that tech addiction is leading to serious repercussions, as was evident from the Blue Whale Challenge crisis, a first-of-its-kind social media game that prompted several teenagers to commit suicide across the world. “The Internet gives immense power to children, but no one has told them how to use it responsibly,” says New Delhi-based psychologist Harsheen Arora. Another repercussion is cyberbullying. In 2016, telecommunications firm Telenor Group conducted research, where it found that 53% Net-savvy Indian children in the age group of eight to 17 years have faced some form of cyberbullying at least once. “There may be various reasons why children are vulnerable such as low self-esteem, social isolation, etc,” points out Pillai of Aarambh. The dark Web is another area of concern. Here, unprotected social media profiles, child sexual abuse sites and online game forums are preying grounds for offenders who tend to be anonymous. “Mobile phones enable children to access the Internet in the privacy of their bedrooms or from a friend’s house. So their online presence becomes more private and less supervised,” says Arora.
The evolution of the Internet has posed challenging policy questions for governments. The fact that the Internet works on a multi-stakeholder model—which includes everyone, from users and Internet service providers (ISPs) to the government—makes implementation of a regulatory framework quite challenging. “Tackling the Internet is particularly problematic, as different countries have different attitudes to issues such as freedom of speech and expression online,” says Emma Hardy, director of external relations, Internet Watch Foundation (IWF), a UK-based not-for-profit organisation supported by the global Internet industry and the European Commission. “Currently, no regulatory mechanism exists to protect children from online dangers,” says Pavan Duggal, a New Delhi-based cyber law expert and Supreme Court lawyer. Safety of children online should be of paramount importance, feels Pillai of Aarambh. “Safety and protection of children are yet to be given due priority by the state and corporates. It’s never a primary agenda for any new product or platform. It always tends to be an afterthought that is, in all probability, conceived as a reactive response to a particular incident,” he says. Even though the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act (POCSO Act) 2012 was formulated to effectively address sexual abuse and exploitation of children, it remains much neglected on ground. “The POCSO law is barely five years old… the institutions are still teething. There is still much work to do in the implementation of mechanisms,” Pillai says.
In April 2017, the government issued an order to curb online child sexual abuse material. This required all ISPs in India to adopt and implement the IWF’s ‘URL List’—a list of Web pages with objectionable content. Implementing the list would prevent netizens from stumbling across child sexual abuse images and videos. It was offered by the IWF to the country’s top five Internet gateways and ISPs—Tata Communications, Bharti Airtel, Reliance Globalcom, Sify Technologies and BSNL. “The deadline for this was July 31, but so far, only Tata Communications has come onboard with us as a member. Vodafone is also a member,” says Hardy of the IWF.
The dark Web, however, presents a challenge even to organisations like the IWF. This is because the location of the websites hosting such content can’t be traced using conventional tools. “We need a robust legal framework,” says Anjela Taneja, technical director, education, CARE India, an organisation working for the empowerment of women and girls from poor and marginalised communities. “Also, greater caution has to be exercised by providers in terms of managing content and by allowing stronger parental controls,” she says. Adds cyber law expert Duggal: “To tackle cyber crimes in the country, the ministry of home affairs recommended setting up an Indian Cyber Crime Coordination Centre in 2015, but the mandate and scope are still not clear.” When it was announced, a budget of Rs 400 crore was earmarked for it. More efforts have followed since. In September 2016, Aarambh, in partnership with the IWF, launched India’s first ‘reporting button’ for child sexual abuse images and videos. It’s a hotline that enables citizens to report objectionable content in a safe and anonymous environment. “If the content is found to be illegal, it’s blocked and taken down,” says Pillai.
Similar initiatives are being undertaken the world over. In December 2017, the French government proposed a draft bill, saying that children under 16 years of age would need their parents’ permission to sign up on Facebook. The US federal law, Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998 (COPPA), requires a site operator to obtain verifiable parental consent before collecting, using or disclosing any personal information related to the child. The UK, too, is gearing up to make its Internet safer. “The UK government recently consulted (us) for an ‘Internet Safety Strategy’, which aims to make Britain the ‘safest place to go online’ and proposes greater transparency for social media companies,” says Hardy. “The IWF is working hard to ensure that children are put at the centre of the digital policy.”
There are several apps as well to track children’s online activity—Qustodio, Kidlogger, Zoodles, Kidtrol, Spyzie, etc, are available for free on Android and iOS platforms. Apps such as eKawach and Kids Place lock other apps and restrict Internet access on devices. Anti-virus software creators such as Norton, McAfee and Kaspersky also provide parental control apps. Safety campaigns play their part too. “In India, the (2016) #staysafeonline campaign aimed to raise awareness among children on how to safely navigate the online world and how to help each other stay safe online,” says Haque of Unicef. The campaign, which was designed by the Unicef in line with the findings and recommendations of its 2016 report on children’s online protection in India, disseminated three core messages among children: be there for a friend in need; treat others with respect; and advise others to be real friends. Till the time, however, stricter laws and stringent punishments are in place, Sood and her ilk will continue to have sleepless nights.