On Safer Internet Day, experts tell Subha J Rao why it is important to protect our online identities

The world watched in 2012 as a Reddit user shot a photograph of a Sikh woman with facial hair and posted it with a caption: “I’m not sure what to conclude from this.” There was a spate of posts that poked fun, and some that defended her. The person in the photograph was Balpreet Kaur. She wrote back saying she was not embarrassed or humiliated by all the online attention.

Not all are like Balpreet. There are many out there who slide into depression or even attempt to take their lives because their image online has taken a beating. There are people who struggle to recover from the negativity after someone breaks up with them over social media. “We knew these things were happening elsewhere, but it’s only now that we get to hear of such incidents in our country,” says Syed Nazir Razik, vice president (marketing) at PMI Chennai chapter and co-founder, The Knowledge Foundation.

Advocate Debarati Halder is the managing director of Centre for Cyber Victim Counselling (CCVC). She says that while hacking and infringement of privacy were prime topics a while ago, today, online bullying, trolling and online stalking (recently recognised as an offence in India) are pressing issues. A victim of cyberbullying takes longer to heal, says Debarati. “Mainly because the harasser knows there is a larger audience to see the harassment and the victim feels that millions were witness to his/her victimisation. There is also the fear that this can spread to life offline as well.” “If a victim is strong and positive, he/she can come out of the trauma within a week, with counselling. But the problem deepens when the victim has already been through some form of abuse. Then, it takes longer to regain confidence and fight back,” she says.

Music teacher Aparna Chandar says that while she knew her 12-year-old daughter’s activity on the Internet till she was using the family laptop, monitoring took the backseat once her daughter was gifted a tab. “My husband and I sat her down and explained the advantages and the many pitfalls of the Internet,” she says. Homemaker Usha Narayanan is grateful to her daughter’s school for the extensive list of dos and dont’s they gave children before starting them on Internet-based homework projects. It included sites to visit, those to avoid and safety tips, including not clicking on pop-ups.

Most children have personal devices these days. How safe is such unmonitored access? Debarati says that private gadgets have made it almost impossible for households to follow standard guidelines such as placing the computer in the family room or being with the child when he/she uses the Net. “The best way to address the issue is to arrange for awareness camps in schools for children and parents,” she adds. Once this happens, students will know where to stop and when to inform elders, she says, sharing the story of a student who, after counselling, told her parents about an online harasser. They lodged a police complaint.

“The ugly head of social media is rearing its head now. The honeymoon period is over,” says Syed, who has been championing the cause of safer Internet for children since his days at Internet Society (ISOC), Chennai. “Children are very vulnerable because they are not emotionally equipped to handle online abuse. They can be ridiculed for anything from a bad hair cut to excess weight, he adds.

So, what is the way forward? “Definitely, not policing,” says Syed. “Instead, put in place some non-negotiable rules. Have constant dialogues to make children understand the dangers. You must build trust. Only then can you jointly tackle any online predators.”

* Safer Internet Day (SID) is organised by Insafe to promote safer and more responsible use of online technology and mobile phones, especially amongst children and young people across the world. The strapline for the campaign is “Let’s create a better Internet together”.

* The Family Online Safety Institute (FOSI) works to make the online world safer for kids and their families. It brings together leaders in Government, industry and non-profit sectors to collaborate and come up with new solutions in child safety online. Check out their contract for parents and children at http://www.fosi.org/images/stories/resources/family-online-safety-contract.pdf * CCVC recently surveyed the use and misuse of Internet by college students (http://www.cybervictims.org/CCVCresearchreport2013.pdf). It showed that many students unknowingly shared messages along with stills and video images that had every potential to spread nation-wide violence.