ISSUE Social networking sites may have shrunk the world but there are many risks that they pose for children. PRIYADARSHINI PAITANDY on what's to like and what's not to

For the past few months 15-year-old Rina had been going out every evening on the pretext of visiting a temple. With her mother, a call centre employee, away on night shifts and father travelling most of the time on work it was easy for her to lie to her grandmother and step out. But soon things went awry — Rina had started indulging in cyber sex with people she had met on a social networking site. The net centre recorded her images and activities and started blackmailing her. This is just one example of the many perils that social networking poses to children. An online search for dangers related to social networking sites throws up a host of chilling results: suicides, online predators, cyber stalking, cyber bullying, and child pornography among others. Given such occurrences, “Mother may I join Facebook?” is perhaps a question that makes most parents cringe. However, consider yourself lucky if your child keeps you in the loop, unlike numerous other children under 13 secretly networking on such websites. This, despite the fact that the minimum age for joining facebook is 13.

“It makes me feel popular. I have 696 friends and they “like” my photographs. I get to interact with more friends here than in person,” says 12-year-old Ronnie who spends a couple of hours on Facebook every day. His parents disapprove, saying it's too early for him to get on a social networking site, so why is he still on it? “Every time they come into the room I close the FB window. All my friends in class are on it and I didn't want to be left behind,” he explains.

Vidya Reddy of Tulir — Centre for the Prevention and Healing of Child Sexual Abuse, says, “With easy access to technology, it's a reflection of changing times. There is of course peer pressure. Kids keep comparing how many friends they have. In certain schools the most popular girl is the one who has the maximum number of boy friends on her list. It's worth noting what relating online is doing to peoples' persona. Children these days find it easier to communicate online than in person.”

She talks of how children are easy targets. They stumble upon obscene content or befriend random people with ulterior motives, have relationships with strangers —sometimes much older than them. There are cases where children, as a result, get pregnant, attempt/commit suicide because they fear their parents might find out or end up getting blackmailed.

“We have leap-frogged to an age of technology and there are new situations and issues that need to be looked into. We need to develop a non-preachy way of explaining to kids the dangers of such sites and how to be wary. It's a risk when you don't engage with young people,” says Vidya.

Cyber bullying

The Internet is rife with a phenomenon where teenagers strike deals with unknown/known people across the globe via webcam. In return for flashing or cyber sex, they get paid. Often the children choose to be paid in kind: they choose their own ‘gifts', such as shoes, games and clothes from websites.

Cyber bullying is also becoming a major issue. “Parents of a child came to us complaining about a sudden drop in his academics. The parents blamed the school. But when we spoke to the child we figured that the problem was online bullying. His classmates were repeatedly posting nasty remarks about him online and that had affected this child deeply. But he did not want to discuss it with his parents,” says Vidya.

It doesn't help that kids tend to be fragile and impressionable in their teenage years. Most teenagers choose to project themselves in a certain way through Facebook. They rapidly change their ‘cool' status updates, constantly upload photos and post a constant stream of information, all in a desperate bid to be validated by online friends, and thus feel accepted. “At this age if you point out their flaws or make a remark about their appearance they tend to get upset. I know of cases where children have gone into depression because somebody commented on their Facebook photo saying they don't look good or are fat,” says Divya Sathyaraj, nutrition and psychiatric counsellor, Prashanth Hospitals.

With the social networking user base increasing, these problems will just get more common. In the last one year 90 per cent of the cases that Tulir dealt with had a technological dimension. Part of the solution is for schools to discuss online risks and responsible ways to use these sites with both parents and children. The solution, Vidya believes, lies in parents understanding that the lifestyle they grew up in is very different from what their kids are facing. “Parents are not providing their kids a congenial atmosphere to discuss issues without being judged. They cannot use their usual heavy-handed tactics,” she says.

Divya agrees and adds, “It's not a bad thing to be on Facebook. It's just very impersonal and children should also be made to write letters, cards, talk over the phone and interact on a personal level.” She cautions, “Saying ‘Get off Facebook', is the worst way to react. Secretly monitoring them won't help either. At that age they don't think, they just do things. Instead, encourage them to talk, and share what's happening in their lives. As a parent you need to do that and let your child know that you are there for them.”

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Here are sites that are child-friendly and teach them how to have a good time online and yet be safe