Alina, 17, Mumbai, says she often gets taunted about her weight on her pictures online. Abhijit, 18, Delhi, mentions he got bullied when he posted his thoughts about the 2019 general election results. Sonali, 16, Kolkata, acknowledges that she remained quiet about her depression and anxiety till she found an online community where she let it all out.
Our relationship with technology is one of the most defining aspects of our life. On an average, Indians spend roughly three of their waking hours on their smartphones. This includes time for conversations, accessing news/information, forming new friendships, entertainment, work, etc.
Teens spend more time online than anyone else. A survey published by McAfee in 2014 titled ‘Tweens, teens and technology’ revealed that 71% teens interacted online with people they don’t know in person, 64% admitted to having created fake profiles to appear more likeable and mature, while 46% admitted “they put themselves in danger to see more engagement/activity on their posts.”
Given the salience of technology in a teenager’s life, and potential associated risks such as cyber-bullying, poor mental health, access to adult content, harassment and body shaming, parents and educators are rightly concerned about managing their kids’ time and interactions online. However, their approach ranges from instituting complete access control to following complete non-interference. While one is akin to hoping that the clock turns back, the other is like leaving an amateur swimmer on their own in the ocean.
So, what should the appropriate response be? First, parents and schools need to acknowledge that many of the behaviours and risks that manifest online reflect their teens’ lives offline, however much they are amplified online because of the anonymity and physical distance offered by the internet. Therefore, we need to invest in social and emotional development of our children. We need to re-inforce positive behaviours such as empathy, respect, tolerance for people who do not ‘fit in’ or who are different. It is important to make teenagers aware that they can be at the receiving end of behaviours such as bullying, even if today they find themselves at the other end.
While parents can engage in this dialogue at a personal level, schools need to institutionalise social and emotional learning as a part of their regular activities. A key learning for us from our initiative – the ‘Counter Speech Fellowship’ that runs in partnership with Instagram, across six cities in India and works with teenagers on these themes online – has been that such programs need not be prescriptive, but should serve as a platform for students to openly share their experiences. The aim should be to create a space for students to reflect on their own behaviours and finally become champions of positive behaviours among their peers.
Second, educators and parents must keep themselves updated with safety features of social media platforms that are popular among teens – like turning off comments, filtering specific trigger words, and reporting content related to self-harm. Third, at an ecosystem level, school education boards should prescribe a digital citizenship curriculum that schools can follow not just for teenagers but even for younger students. A recent survey by McAfee, was conducted among affluent kids across 10 major cities in India. It suggested that 62% of the surveyed kids (aged 4-12) had an e-mail address. Out of these kids, 67% were 4-8 years old. This shows that the age at which kids are experimenting with internet is reducing rapidly.
While many private organisations have worked on disparate digital citizenship curriculums, there needs to be a common consensus on the required approach by involving academics, technology companies, parents, school administrators and teens themselves. As more and more teenagers from tier 2 and tier 3 towns and cities in India join cyberspace, this becomes even more pertinent.
It in fact can be argued that social media usage is intrinsically linked with broader civic education, and this is also an opportunity for shaping citizens of tomorrow to be mindful of the power of social media and its equal ability to be deployed both for positive and negative causes. For far too long, we have parked the blame at technology’s door itself for encouraging these behaviours, but constant and innovative engagement with youth is essential in making the internet a more hospitable space.
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.