The principal of a top Gurgaon school summoned us minutes before our Internet Safety Students' Workshop to ask, “What are you going to tell my middle school children, so that they don’t get ideas that were not there before?”
At a progressive school in Noida, the principal interrupted with concern, “By telling them not to put their real names online, we will be asking them to lie!” We explained the logic, “We will tell the children to simply use their first names, not their full names. This way, they will not be identifiable by strangers.” She smiled and nodded.
When we began educating children on Internet Safety back in 2009, the subject was completely neglected by all stakeholders — parents, teachers, students, schools, institutions, corporates and NGOs as well as the government. Five years down the line, things haven’t changed much. There is still an absence of structured instruction in schools, scheduling a one-hour awareness workshop continues to be a herculean challenge and, shockingly, less than 10 per cent of youth are vaguely aware that laws exist to govern cyberspace.
Early start With India’s major ongoing thrust on digital literacy, it is imperative for digital literacy to go hand-in-hand with digital safety instruction. Children, right from infancy, are cautioned by parents about ‘real world’ strangers and dangers. But, educating them about the perils of our parallel ‘online world’ is mostly overlooked, completely lacking or insufficient.
Just as laying the ground rules for decorum at home or school is the norm, the approach for inculcating safe and responsible Internet use should be taught right from pre-teen years. Concepts of polite speech, guarding personal information and passwords, caution when approaching strangers on the Internet, cyberbullying, fundamental aspects like ‘24x7 permanence’ of posts are just some of the key lessons to be imbued early on.
Our recent surveys in Delhi confirmed alarming online social behaviour and deplorable Netiquette.
Risky online behaviour A survey was conducted among 200 students of whom 165 were between 10 and 13 years of age. To a question, “If someone writes something rude about you on the Internet, what would you do?” nine per cent of boys and eight per cent of girls responded that they would write back something mean.
More risky and alarming was their answer to, “Do you talk to strangers online?” Nearly one out of every four boys confirmed that they interact with strangers online. Further, 16 per cent of girls grudgingly admitted, “Maybe.”
Were the girls afraid to own up that their online actions were actually risky? During our post-workshop discussion, a few children admitted that why they thought this behaviour did not strike them as dangerous was because they believed, firstly, that all strangers are not bad, and, secondly, they can differentiate between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ persons online.
Truth about trust At such moments, the Gurgaon principal’s question echoes within us. Telling children, for example, not to share passwords even with their best friends, since, in the case of a change of heart, they may misuse the password, is tricky business. Piercing the implicit trust and bonding of healthy friendships with the tiniest seed of doubt can be devastating, especially for girls.
Or, to explain that a taunt or abuse from ‘A’ could actually have been from ‘B’ because of the misleading anonymity factor, can plant experimentation ideas into a tender mind. To explain this, we introduced a discussion on the basics of cyber laws and provisions.
Vulnerable and voiceless Sometimes, some children yearn for an outlet, but the void in structured Internet Safety Education, both at home and at school, means that they remain unheard.
During workshops, our trained college volunteers and members become a welcome outlet for these young confused minds. A pre-teen relates a particularly traumatic and lengthy episode of cyberbullying playing out on a social networking site; two middle school girls who fix a clandestine meeting with ‘online friends’ who claim to be from an upscale school, discover they narrowly missed being targets of mischiefmakers; a class VIII student’s ‘indiscreet’ sexting is widely circulated leading to taunts behind his/her back. These are everyday instances from middle-class India.
Education is the key Given that India’s vast adolescent (10-19 years) population stands at 29.3 crore (according to 2011 Census), these are the youth who will be our country’s workforce tomorrow, rightfully equipped with digital literacy and, equally, digital safety.
February 10 was celebrated as Safer Internet Day in many countries across the world. It’s about time all stakeholders heard that wake-up call to create an enabling environment for education about safe and responsible digital citizenship.
The writer is a member of JaagoTeens, a registered Society committed to Internet safety education. Visit >www.jaagoteens.com for more information or write to firstname.lastname@example.org