Can today's playful post get you into problems tomorrow? We ask around….

Vilayaatu Vinaiyaayidum. I've heard my grandmother use this little phrase all my childhood; it basically cautions against doing something for fun, which might have unpleasant consequences. Looking back, she scolded my brother and me for innocent little things — shinnying up short walls and pointing water-pistols at each other's heads. Frankly, we couldn't have done much damage to ourselves, unless we had tried very hard; and I doubt our futures would've been ruined just because we got our hair wet. By today's standards, it meant nothing; because, without so much as stepping out of their rooms, or moving from their chairs, kids manage to get upto so much mischief. And do some serious damage to their future prospects as well…

Of course, we're talking computers and social-media — it's very fashionable to curse no? — and how the easy, unfettered access can potentially lead to a truckload of trouble. Take the case of the two young chaps who were barred entry into the U.S. after tweets that were considered threats; one rashly declared he wanted to ‘destroy America' and another vowed to blow-up an airport ‘sky-high' if he were not re-united with his girl-friend. Both of them vehemently denied they had any intention of creating trouble; but just like the number of people — a good number, really — who lost their job/ job-offers thanks to badly worded messages on Facebook/Twitter, their rebuttals and belated apologies, unfortunately, doesn't quite cut it.

Meenakshi, mum of two kids says social media is now seen as a place to vent your feelings. “But feelings are so subjective, momentary, and not to be taken as personal policies cast in stone.” The trick, therefore, is teaching your children what to — and more importantly — what not to say in a public forum. “I know for a fact that kids in my niece's class are supposed to approve the friend request from their class teacher, so she can have an eye on their activities. As a policy it seems okay, but kids being kids, they will definitely find ways to circumvent these things,” adds Meenakshi. And being kids, they will also unintentionally get into trouble saying pointlessly silly/ rude things about the very same class-teacher, carried away by the illusion of anonymity that the Internet provides.

Vanitha, mother of an eight and five-year-old, says that she is ‘not okay' with her children doing anything that might create a negative image online. The reason? “We do not live in seclusion or in a bubble,” says Vanitha. “Why should not good behavioural rules apply to social networking sites too?”

Archana the mother of a college-going girl says her daughter's close friend swaps the name of one (female) classmate after the other in the “married to” column in Facebook. “It is genuinely puzzling why someone will want to do this,” she says. “Is this even funny? Or is it to seek attention?”

Privacy concerns

And it is this kind of indiscriminate information sharing that worries parents. “The biggest concerns I have are around privacy; kids (and adults too) share too much personal information and we truly have no idea who views it. We think that we are only sharing with a friend, not knowing whether or not the friend is happy to share it with just about anyone. Also, this allows very easy access to unedited, raw information,” says Deepa mother of a pre-teen girl.

Big and alarming questions remain about how this information can work for/ against you in the future — are prospective-employers and prospective-spouses going to go through your online history with a fine-toothed comb? How long do the photos that you're already terribly embarrassed about — and want to delete — actually stay online? What if something that is irreprehensibly funny to you (about your teacher/ boss) irritates them?

But Kalyani cautions against over-reacting to what is now a very normal part of growing up. “Facebook is just like any other aspect of children's life — a choice, and there will always be those who overstep. Parents can monitor/hover/shadow/teach/threaten, but ultimately if the individual is not mature enough to make sensible decisions, we will see more such incidents. It is more so in India as the younger generation now has a freedom they have never had before and have a readymade forum to pen down their thoughts.”

No joking matter

*Awareness is the key to keep your kids out of trouble; you could tell them horror stories of children whose lives have tragically ended or who’ve been sexually exploited because of online indiscretions. But laying the facts bare — objectively — might actually work better.

*Encourage kids to only say online what they would tell someone to their face. *If you find the online etiquette of the group your kid hangs out with appalling, treat it just the way you would a normally disruptive gang; try reasoning out, but if that fails, encourage your child to move on.

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Aparna KarthikeyanJune 28, 2012