India File

Our kids are not safe online

Venkatesh Ganesh Jinoy Jose P | Updated on March 13, 2019 Published on March 11, 2019

Cyber crimes against children are on the rise and how to check them is a billion-dollar question. Venkatesh Ganesh and Jinoy Jose P shine a light on the murky world of online crime that targets young minds

It is perhaps ironic that Ajmer, a small town cherry-picked by the Centre as one of the Smart Cities, witnessed the first casualty of our technology-fuelled age last August. A 16-year-old, Std X student hanged herself as, allegedly, she had reached the final stage of a dangerous online game — the “Momo Challenge”. According to reports, the girl was besotted with the game and even reached its last stage (sic).

The Momo Challenge is popular in the US, Argentina, France, Mexico and Germany. It claimed its first victim soon after it made its appearance in 2018 — a 12-year-old girl committed suicide in Argentina. Basically, it asks the players to inflict self-damage (and record it at every stage) and in the final stage, it asks the participant to commit suicide.

While one can argue about whether this constitutes a cyber crime, the fact remains that such instances have been on the rise, keeping parents, the civil society, companies and authorities on tenterhooks.

What’s happening?

Broadly, cyber crimes against children can be categorised into four areas — child trafficking, cyber bullying, pornography and identity theft (which leads to financial frauds). This would cover the age group from 0-10 years, 11-14 years and 15-18 years. According to the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) and rights groups tracking cyber crimes against children, nearly 14 crore children have access to mobile phones in India and the number is growing rapidly, with even faster access to the internet.

A report by NCPCR notes that while improved penetration of smartphones provides opportunities for accessing useful material for learning purposes, lack of digital literacy and online safety measures exposes children to the hazards of cyber crime.

“When it comes to the fight against cyber crimes, especially against children, in India we are at the bottom of it all,” says Alamu R, who ‘flags’ videos for YouTube. A researcher with Delhi’s JNU, Alamu has been tracking videos on social media, mainly YouTube, that are violent, obscene, and can cause psychological damage to children.

She says cyber crimes are not properly recorded in India due to many reasons, including lack of awareness among the cops who tackle such cases and the way India’s digitally naïve parents and their children take to gadgets and technology.

According to data from the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), during 2014-16, Uttar Pradesh ranked first, with 21.4 per cent of the crimes, followed by Maharashtra, with 19.3 per cent. Even though there is no separate mention of cyber crimes against children in the database, activists and law enforcement agencies agree that such instances are on the rise, across all sections of society. The issue of human trafficking, which has got a fillip due to the reach of the internet, is a cause of concern. All the activity being underground, the numbers on human trafficking are hazy but according to a 2012 report by the International Labour Organisation, 21 million are enslaved and a large number of them are children.

“There is no class angle in this. Technology is a great leveller that way. Children from all sections of society now fall prey to online crimes,” says Vidya Reddy, who runs Tulir-Centre for the Prevention and Healing Child Sexual Abuse, a Chennai-based NGO. Reddy says that most people use gadgets to access services without adequate knowledge about the intricacies of digital technologies, about how the devices (phones, tablets) and software applications (say, Facebook) function.

“They do not pay attention to ‘the fine print’ and remain unaware of the risks,” says Sanjay Sahay, IPS, DG & IGP Office, adding that parents often don’t sufficiently invest time with their children to educate them about the pros and cons of using devices and social media.

What are we doing?

Parents often give internet-enabled smart devices to their children way too early. Take Karishma Grover in Mumbai, a 12-year-old whose parents work in multinational software companies. She got a China-made snazzy smartphone in 2016 and since then has been using the phone three hours a day, on average. “One of the most important things that parents should ask themselves is whether they are giving a device too soon. While there is no clear answer, parents need to understand children and accordingly make a decision,” says Vijay Ratnaparkhe, President & MD, Robert Bosch Engineering.

Sociologists and psychologists believe that parents need to figure out a way to address this issue as a child, more or less, mimics them. “When a child sees you (parent) come back and spend time on laptops and phones, it will think this is a normal course of behaviour,” points out a psychologist from NIMHANS. That needs to change.

Parents are the first guardians of children when it comes to protecting them from digital abuse, notes Alamu. “These days, most parents with a digital identity post regular updates about their activities and photos of their children and what they do at home and outside,” she says. “They don’t realise how these updates and photos, however private, can be manipulated by vested interests, including paedophiles.”

For Shruti Menon (name changed), a school teacher in Bengaluru, ‘body shaming’ (wherein people discriminate against body types and stereotype behaviour) was a term heard only in reference to the Western society. Little did she know that her daughter was subjected to it, amongst her school circles. “She would be very active on Facebook but after friends starting body shaming her (for her complexion), she became a recluse and eventually closed her Facebook account,” says Menon.

According to child rights activists, sexual predators regularly put out a lot of videos that target children, ‘grooming’ them into sexual acts and fraudulent behaviour. If children believe they are being a party to such activities, they refrain from communicating with their parents.

“At times, even the videos posted by parents are used by criminals to target the children,” says Reddy of Tulir.

“But often parents are not ready to accept the fact that they are as digitally naïve as their children. That adds to the problem.”

Even if they want to, most parents cannot spot how sexually abusive content is shared on social media. Take child pornography, for instance. “These criminals operate in code words,” says Alamu, who flagged hundreds of such videos that otherwise look innocent to a regular user. “Many people don’t know how the comments section in platforms such as YouTube operates,” says Alamu.

“Cyber criminals use these comments to fetch their preys, communicate with each other and do many other things.” YouTube has now banned comments on some children’s videos, she notes. “But it is very difficult even for them to spot such traffic because it all happens through code words and secret languages that only the interested parties understand.”

With platforms like TikTok making child selfie-videos so accessible, helping them become social influencers, the chances of their getting lured into sexual abuse rackets are all the more apparent now.

Problems galore

There are many sub-texts to the problem of cyber crimes against children. Unlike in the West, where institutions have been established to specifically address such concerns, in addition to the society there not being averse to taking help from a psychologist, in India it is still not considered ‘okay’ to take help from these sources. Additionally, many institutions and schools don’t have counselling centres and cyber-related crimes are not taught in schools.

“It has to be made compulsory just like you study history,” stresses Sahay. Schools, on their part, are doing their bit but not enough. Most private schools do not allow children to carry mobile phones. “That said, most schools don’t have an internet or social media policy for their children,” says Reddy of Tulir.

The HRD Ministry must make social media studies a part of the curriculum and must educate children and parents on the pitfalls of living online and the need to respect privacy, say activists.

While it is important to formulate clearer laws to tackle cyber crimes against children, it is equally important to hold IT companies responsible for their content. Indian companies in the $167-billion IT sector have generally followed their western counterparts and given it a desi tadka, and they cut a sorry figure when it comes to creating awareness for children.

An email sent to YouTube, one of the most widely used platforms for children, went unanswered. There are a few examples of corporations doing their bit. WNS Cares Foundation’s video with the #ThinkTalkTeach went viral with upwards of 1 million views. “Companies won’t do anything based on moral guidelines because they are all driven by profits,” says Alamu.

“Recently, YouTube was forced to act on some videos when there was some pressure from their advertisers.” Globally, she says, some advertising agencies pulled out, objecting to certain content hosted by YouTube. “Then they tried to convince advertisers by saying that they now have human hands in addition to the algorithm to flag malicious content. But even then, things were not happening smoothly.”

Government’s role

The Indian government, similar to many others, is behind the curve with regard to tackling cyber crime.

“We need better laws, better tech, we need to hold intermediaries (such as Facebook Google, etc.) responsible and liable. What laws should apply when it involves minors?” asks Ravi Gururaj, an investor, entrepreneur and member of Nasscom.

To answer the questions raised by all these stakeholders, the community, technology providers, law enforcement agencies, and the government, will need to come together for united action against cyber crime, especially against children.

Published on March 11, 2019

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