In recent months, there has been a staggering uptake of social media in India. The Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI) and Indian Market Research Bureau (IMRB) predicted that the number of social media site (SMS) users would reach 66 million by June 2013. The total number of internet users may already be above 150 million making India the third most populace internet user in the world (behind China and the U.S.). By 2014, the number of internet users may reach 168 million and by 2017: 282 million. This, combined with the relatively low levels of IT awareness, makes India a prime target for online fraud and cybercrime. However, while the economic effects of high internet propensity receive most of the business and media airtime, it is the societal impacts of internet usage that are of even greater concern.
The growth of SMS usage is likely to create huge problems in this domain particularly if recent case studies from the West (particularly the U.K. and the U.S.) are anything to go by. In the West, the rapid rise of the SMS phenomena has caused a lot of angst, concern and heartache for parents who are deeply concerned with their child's online presence, usage and activity. What is of particular concern are recent cases involving cyber trolls, bullies, blackmailers and stalkers who have harassed and abused children — in many cases, leading to self-harm and even suicide.
In the West, cyber bullying has led to a number of suicides — such as those of Amanda Todd, Rebecca Sedwick, Megan Meier and Hannah Smith all of whom committed suicide after prolonged cases of cyber bullying.
Cyber blackmail led to the suicide of 17-year-old Daniel Perry, who jumped to his death from a bridge in Scotland after a blackmailer threatened to share a compromising webcam video with Daniel’s family.
Added to this is the phenomena of cyber-trolls — who create hatred through aggressive and often verbally abusive campaigns against people.
These are examples of cases which in time may sadly begin to become prevalent and more common place in India.
Possibly, the darkest side of this phenomenon is the growing popularity of sites such as Pink Meth (now banned in most countries) where ex-boyfriends, bullies and disgruntled youths can post very compromising photographs of girls and encourage subscribers from around the world to participate in — what can only be described as medieval, open and abusive verbal flogging.
Some of the cases described herein began with the victims entering into willing communication (at first) with their perpetrators. Quite often that relationship and dialogue turned sour because of the motivations of the perpetrator. This then results in bullying, blackmail or trolling where by now the perpetrator has a lot of information — occasionally quite compromising and consisting of pictures, audio recordings and video which the child has willingly shared.
The perpetrator threatens to expose the child publicly to their school friends and parents unless they either pay the extortionist, continue to show affection and/or continue to expose themselves. The child is of course deeply troubled by this and sees no way out of this, and in extreme cases, this results in self-harm and even suicide.
The perpetrators are aided by a plethora of web sites (many of which are banned in most countries) such as Pink Meth, which allows the bully to expose the child and attract further negativity towards the child through comments from other abusive users of the web sites.
Occasionally, the perpetrator might upload a video to an SMS or even YouTube.
While the above examples have involved a willing participation (in the early days of the dialogue at least), a new worrying trend is taking this threat to another level. The latest trend in this technological space enables hackers to access a user’s webcam using RAT malware (Remote Administration Tool malware). RAT malware turns on a web cam on a user's machine without the user realising it, this can result in the capture of very compromising footage which is then used as part of the bullying, trolling and blackmailing campaign.
Why is all this a worrying development for the new generation of internet savvy Indians? Well the first ingredient in this broth is the concept of izzat which rides much more strongly in India than in the West.
Families in India are bound with communal honour and dignity and anything that upsets one’s societal position causes much greater tremors than typically might in a Western family.
Secondly, Indian IT users are less technologically aware than users in the West, this means that IT users may lead themselves into compromising situations without realising what is happening.
So what can a parent do to safeguard their child while not preventing them from participating in the online community of friends who have extended their space from the classroom into the social media domain?
To begin with, the best solution to some of these problems is to adopt and have an open, constructive and supportive dialogue when it comes to your child’s SMS usage. If you don’t and if you are seen to be constraining the child – whose friends are all using SMS and conducting daily communications and exchanges, the child will only find a secretive way to become part of that online community – which defeats the objective and means that the child is increasing the risk exposure. Here are my top 4 simple tips to safeguard your child’s space in SMS.
1. Support. Have an open, supportive and friendly dialogue about your child’s SMS usage. Be interested in it, you ask them how school was or how the play-date at her friend's house went right? Well ask them 'what's new' in the SMS space. Any new friends? What are they up to?
This is probably the most important rule because like most things to do with our children, there's no better solution to problems than love and support.
Importantly, ask them to speak to you if they are ever worried about anything they see on their SMS space.
2. The Rules. Establish some ground rules relating to how much time your child is allowed to spend online in their SMS space.
Remember to enforce the rules set by the SMS providers, for instance Facebook has an age limit of 13, that age limit is there for a reason...
Use the rules and settings that the SMS provider has developed — specifically to protect people. An example of this are the privacy settings. Be meticulous in setting up your child’s privacy settings and be sure to enforce these — even checking occasionally to ensure they are never changed.
3. Visibility and monitoring. Establish and ensure visibility of your child’s SMS space. Place your child’s computer within family access and visibility — the living room for instance, where you can keep a quiet eye on what is going on.
Depending on the age of your child, you may want to monitor their internet usage. Whilst an older child may despise this and begin to feel rebellious, a younger child’s usage can be monitored through the use of software such as NetNanny.
Restrict the platforms through which a child can access SMS. The more platforms (laptop, desktop, mobile phone, tablet and even SmartTV) your child is using, the less visible their SMS space becomes to you.
Ask to become a friend on their profile. This will probably be very unpopular but maybe you can make this a condition of their online presence.
4. Hygiene and Etiquette. SMS is — as the name suggests, a social space, which means that it has rules of behaviour and etiquettes. Ensure that your child is aware of these. For instance, your child should already be aware of not talking to strangers on their way to school right? Then in the same way they should not befriend anybody that they don't know about in the SMS space. Teach them how to tell a stranger from a friend.
My personal rule is not to post anything onto my Facebook profile that I wouldn’t announce in a room of colleagues or family — teach your children to apply the same.
You can see that these are relatively simple rules — which actually apply in most ‘social spaces’ that we are familiar with. In fact, not a lot changes when we move into the internet space.
(The writer is a Senior Teaching Fellow in Cyber Security at the University of Warwick, U.K.)
Keywords: Social media in India, Internet and Mobile Association of India, Indian Market Research Bureau, Indian internet users, Social media sites, Children's access to internet, Social media and children