‘Children’s foray into internet world earlier than ever before’

A recent sample survey conducted by security software company McAfee has shown that 97 per cent of teenagers have a social networking account and that most opened their accounts at the age of 13.

The sample size was 757 children aged between 13 and 17.

Despite the small sample size and the fact that Internet penetration across the country is less than 10 per cent of the population, the survey still offers a crucial indicator of trends among children of the urban elite.

With stories and games being offered online, says Anindita Mishra of McAfee India, a child’s introduction to the Internet has become earlier that before.

“While it is a fact that the children today are more tech-savvy, their inexperience makes them more vulnerable on the net,” she says.

They fail to understand the “long-term consequences of their online behaviour” by exposing data about themselves and others around them, Ms. Mishra says.

Roopa Handa, a mother of two teenage girls, says: “I trust my children to be sensible on the Internet and don’t monitor their behaviour at all, although they do keep a tab on each other.”

Ms. Mishra, however, advocates a more interventionist approach for parents.

“Just like how children are not allowed to learn to ride a bicycle on their own, they shouldn’t be allowed to just log-in without any initiation.”

Interestingly, the survey also shows that 57.4 per cent of surveyed parents in Bangalore helped their teenagers set up their networking accounts. Most, it has emerged, bowed to emotional pressure from their children.

India’s per capita Internet usage might still be a small fraction of the larger population, but in terms of absolute numbers, the country seems all set to have the third largest number of Internet users in the world by 2013. And a sizeable chunk of these users are likely to be children, if the survey is anything to go by.

Yet, there are few safeguards or indeed a plan from the government to ensure that underage users are protected from online booby traps. On the other hand, the South Korean government, which has acknowledged the need for cyber-security among children, will teach children as young as three years to protect themselves from overusing digital gadgets and the Internet in the coming year.

While the vulnerability of children to cyber stalkers is a matter of concern, teenagers are also quite capable of committing crimes on the Internet. Crimes committed by children can range from hacking, publishing and transfer of pornographic material, cyber-bullying and sending/posting offensive material to child pornography, usually done out of curiosity or peer pressure.

Pointing out that no child offender has been booked, Supreme Court advocate and Cyberlaws.net president Pavan Duggal, bold legislation is needed to prevent and punish violations of cyber laws by underage users.