I am often asked at what age children in India start using the internet and a definitive answer is expected of me. However, in a country that has over a billion reported mobile subscribers and more than 400 million internet users, both the question and the answer become irrelevant. Parents today take pride in giving a mobile phone to even a toddler to watch cartoon films and videos. At school, teachers and parents create messenger and social network groups to share homework and discuss study material. The fact is there is no age barrier to start using the internet today.
With the increasing use of internet and smartphones, cybercrime and cyber-bullying have emerged as major concerns in India.
Studies and surveys show that the majority of children in the age group of 8 to 16 years are not only using Internet but are also using social media networks. Over 93% of 1402 students sampled across seven cities access the internet every day according to a Student Online Behaviour Report by HT Digital and IMRB. We should be happy that the next generation has started early on their digital journey. The internet is a repository of information that opens up treasures of knowledge. But then there is a dark side to it too.
Young minds may be exposed to harmful content and online behaviour that might leave them scarred for life. Every day we read about our children falling prey to cyber-bullying, cyber-stalking and online abuse; they may be exposed to obscene content. With the increasing use of internet and smartphones, cybercrime and cyber-bullying have emerged as major concerns in India
Due to their immaturity and inquisitiveness, children are more likely to fall victim to cyber-attacks. According to research by Telenor Group, 53% of children in the age group of 8 to 17 years who are currently using the net have faced some form of cyber-bullying at least once. As a result, parents in India fear online bullying more than physical bullying for their children, even though compared to their global peers, Indian parents are 20% more likely to limit their children's online activities.
But is limiting online activity a remedy for online threats? No. What is essential here is to create awareness—among the children, as well as parents.
Creating safe internet
The lack of awareness about potential cyber harm and how to avoid is what makes young people vulnerable. Such instances can have long-term negative impact and may cause extreme psychological damage. While it is almost impossible to completely erase content once posted online, it is important for us to not blame or shame children if they are entrapped into sharing offensive content. They are only victims and need to be counselled in such a case.
Parental control and filters are good, but it's even more important to create filters in the minds of our children.
Parents and teachers should be vigilant enough to identify the signs of cyber-bullying or a child suffering from cyber harm. Parents must talk to their children on the basic steps of safety while surfing the net. These steps include not becoming over-friendly with strangers, never sharing personal information with anyone online, creating a strong password and not sharing it with anyone.
The government is also working to keep a check on child pornography and online trolling. The Home Ministry recently announced the setting up of the Indian Cyber Crime Coordination Centre (IC4) at the national level to deal with all types of cybercrime. It can be utilized for investigation of child pornography and online violence. With a budget of ₹400 crore, IC4 will act as a nodal point to fight against cybercrime as well as an early warning system for law enforcement agencies with active cybercrime monitoring. In addition, the Minister of Women and Child Development launched India's first hotline to report images and videos of child sexual abuse online. The portal is available in both Hindi and English.
There are numerous apps developed with the sole purpose of giving parents peace of mind with regard to the cyber safety of their children. These applications are basically cloud-based browsers that monitor websites every day to prevent children from opening inappropriate pages. Every time a child browses the internet, these apps will make sure that he/she is not able to reach the wrong places. These apps are beneficial for parents as they help them keep a tab on which sites are being viewed by their children.
It is very important that the right set of protocols are implemented for online safety of children. Various telecom companies have been considering offering self-censorship to consumers, especially after the government recently imposed a short-lived ban on pornographic websites. Telenor also has a child abuse filter that blocks mobile and computer access to content that is related to child pornography. Under Telenor's WebWise program launched two years back, workshops have been organized in 72 schools across 14 cities to make more than 40,000 children learn how to use internet safely. The pre- and post-workshop surveys show that the attending children lacked awareness about the importance of passwords and where to go in case they face any cyber-harm. Teachers and parents are now more conscious about identifying signs of problems among their children before it is too late.
The need of the hour
Taking a cue from various initiatives towards safe internet awareness, it would be good if the government includes the topic in the school curriculum. A few years back, when the world was grappling with the fear of global warming and ozone layer depletion, the government made environmental studies a compulsory subject across all education boards. It is time the same is done for safe internet practices. Parental control and filters are good, but it's even more important to create filters in the minds of our children.