Who among you would rather pore over a stack of reference books in the library, when ‘Google Books' can take you straight to the very page you want to read? We have long since bid farewell to letter writing to friends and family, with the entry of e-mail, SMS and the now hyped social networking sites. India is a developing country, but we are not too far behind when we talk in terms of the World Wide Web. India is the fourth largest user of the Internet. When compared to the total population of internet users in our country, the age group14-25 is the one who spend most of their time online. Undoubtedly, the internet is extremely useful and many of us will agree that we would be handicapped without it, but unfortunately, it brings with it, its share of evils, which are well publicized these days.

By large, India is still a conservative nation. While merely talking to a person of the opposite sex is no longer considered “taboo”, it is still frowned upon in most households. The internet provides youngsters with an outlet, as here they can easily interact with whomever they wish, without their parents knowing. They can be unrestrained under the cloak of anonymity and may say or do things that they would probably have never done if they were face to face with the person. Technology-imposed distancing encourages insensitive behaviour as one cannot see the impact of one's words or actions.

With increasing awareness and use of the internet and mobile phones, there seems to be an alarming increase in cyber-crime. Today, online safety is the talk of the town and many people are concerned about the well-being of our youngsters who are exposed to a lot of nasty material on the internet.

Several articles and campaigns have targeted this vulnerable group and certain ground rules are drilled into their heads.

Do's and don'ts

Never give out personal information (such as your full name, home/school address, telephone/mobile number and personal e-mail id. You would be surprised at how easy it is to track an individual with any one of these details!

Never accept nor open mails from strangers. It just spells trouble as it could be a virus, annoying material or a porn link. 41% of youngsters in Chennai have reported to have received unwanted pornographic material as a link or an advertisement.

Never meet up alone with someone you have just known through the internet. As you cannot actually see the other person, you may not know who they actually are. Pedophiles and sex abusers find it easy to prey on youngsters, by winning their trust, pretending to be age-mates.

Talk to a trusted adult in case anything on the net makes you uncomfortable.

These methods to use the internet safely are all fine and good, but what do teenagers think of these restrictions? Talking to a few sixteen-year olds who are avid internet users, I got a little more insight into how exactly they view the problem. Well at first, you would be pleased to know that today's youngsters seem to be pretty mature on realising the need for cyber safety. They agree that meeting up with a stranger is “stupid” and someone who enters an open chat room is asking for trouble. Talk to people only on your friends list and accept friend requests only if you know who that person is. Friends of friends should be added only if they are known to you as well, or you have met them before.

Talk it out

The only problem seems to be the “talk to a trusted adult” part. Most young people would not go to their parents about problems online as many parents are not familiar with the workings of the net and hence would overreact. They might fly off the handle and ban their children from using the internet, something which teenagers would rather not risk. Moving on to teachers, there are very few with whom these youngsters would feel comfortable in confiding in. On the brighter side, school counselors, if they are approachable and if they interact closely with the students, get the teens' vote for divulging information about their online concerns. A small note – schools are encouraged to invest in a good counsellor as today's youngsters seem more willing to open up to them.

Basically the youth feel that they are well-equipped to handle most issues by themselves. They can block unwanted people on the net and in the case of girls, who receive messages or calls on their mobile phones, from boys or men they do not know, guy friends, older brothers and fathers are always there to scare them off. Only if problems escalate, for example if someone consistently sends disturbing material, then they would probably take it up with the school counsellor, who would communicate the same to their parents. Teenagers prefer if this goes through the counsellor first as they feel that the counsellor will be able to phrase things in such a way that parents do not “freak out”. In case things have to be taken up with the police, young people say that they will most definitely need their parents' support.

When asked about the most vulnerable age group, it was unanimously agreed that instead of having age as a criterion, internet experience should be used as the yardstick. New users to the internet at any age are easy targets. Another thing is that more awareness programs should be focused at parents, teaching them how to deal with problems that their children may face. Plain parental monitoring or forbidding the use of the internet is NOT going to help. If children can sneak and use mobile phones without their parents' knowledge, using the internet on the sly will be like a walk in the park for them! What parents can do is create an atmosphere of trust so that their children will feel comfortable to approach them. They should know their teen's friends and importantly take time to listen to their children.

Safety on social networking sites have been dealt with a good number of times, but an issue in which many teens are the perpetrators and yet do not consider serious is “cyber-bullying”. By definition, it refers to any bullying behaviour that takes place through electronic means, such as sending threatening texts messages, posting unpleasant things about people and circulating unpleasant pictures and videos of someone. Sounds familiar? What is the harm in teasing someone you may ask; they should just take it in their stride and be a sport. Well, harmlessly pulling your friend's leg is very different from posting rude and derogatory stuff on the net, which can haunt the victim 24/7. Cyber-bullying can be a lot more upsetting than normal bullying as it spreads widely and has a greater degree of publicity.

The problem is also that most young people will not complain about such instances, for fear of being bullied even more, especially if school mates are involved. The solution lies with the teenagers themselves, who should learn to be more sensitive and respect others even online. It would help if you took a little time to put yourself in the shoes of the victim and feel their hurt, instead of adopting technology's cold indifference. Be human!

In conclusion, here is a simple piece of advice, do not do things online, that you would not do in real life.

Treat people on the internet as you would if you were dealing with them face-to-face. You would not accept a lift from a stranger; in the same way, treat everyone you do not know personally on the net as strangers. Most importantly, be yourself!

Do not become someone else you are not, just because the internet offers you the opportunity to do so – it is too much trouble and besides, there is no need to. At the end of the day, it's the real you that you should celebrate being, and not your cyber-alter!

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Cassandra Sundaraja is a III B.Sc Psychology student at WCC