A mother of two, Nidhi Pramod, had always been wary of the smartphone and preferred to keep the gadget at arm’s length, and for obvious reasons. The humble device that could fit in his palm had overthrown his children – Rehaan, 11, and Vivaan, 9 – in no time. Much to his chagrin, the duo preferred to spend most of their waking hours in his company. Both annoyed and alarmed by their fascination with gadgets, Pramod quickly called for an intervention. “I was disturbed by PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG) which was doing the rounds at the time. Their gaming addiction had caught my attention and set off alarm bells. A new internet challenge pops up every day, from Momo to Keke, from Blue Whale to Tide Pod. Kids are innocent and can end up falling in love with these online games, losing a lot in a bitter trade-off for momentary fun,” Pramod warns, recounting how she was able to smother the issue nipped in 2018. It was easier back then to cut through your kids’ digital banter and keep them from falling prey to internet challenges.
Two years later, the pandemic hit and the whole world was in lockdown. Schools went online, as did everything else, and there was no escaping the digital exposure for the children of Pramod and others of their ilk. “I’ve been on my toes ever since, but even then it’s been getting harder and harder for me to monitor my kids’ screen time, control their addiction, and keep tabs on their online adventures” , explains Gurugram’s mother, telling how Ro in Decoupledthey learned how to clear their web history.
Why is this important?
The issue of children’s safety on the Internet deserves our attention because they are the most vulnerable and can fall prey to online predators who will exploit their innocence for their gain.
But in today’s age where technology is an integral part of people’s lives, that seems difficult. “Children are growing up with technology everywhere, whether it is entertainment or education. They are connected online more than ever, spending much of their day in the online world. learning, playing or streaming, all of which have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic,” says Sonali Kumar, an educator based in Navi Mumbai.
Sometimes overexposure or addiction to gadgets presents risks that can lead to cyberbullying or accepting internet challenges that can be life-threatening. One can be duped by online scams, or fall for online predators who prey on young children, finding them through social networking sites, chat rooms, chat rooms, and taking advantage of their innocence and then exploit them sexually.
“With the whole world moving online, children’s exposure to the internet has seen a significant increase. As a teacher, I can see a visible change in children’s behavior, attitude and learning before and after the pandemic. We may love it, we may hate it, but we certainly cannot ignore the influence of the internet on children,” adds Kumar.
A few teens and young adults are locked in the throes of their gadgetry, vying for attention and social recognition in online media. They don’t mind accepting online challenges, befriending a stranger, or even sharing personal information. “The likes and comments on their social media posts, shares and followers make them feel wanted and desirable. Social media greatly influences a teenager’s or young adult’s social acceptance. They cater to the immediate need for gratification,” says clinical psychologist Dr. Keerti Panda. However, she adds that a lot depends on the neuropsychological and socio-cultural aspect that makes them vulnerable to the misfortunes of the Internet.
There is scientific reasoning behind this behavior. Teenagers and young adults are more likely to fall prey to digital monsters, to accept and take on risky internet challenges, or to fall prey to online scams, because the brain’s prefrontal cortex (the region responsible control) is in the development stage. “In boys, this part of the brain didn’t fully develop until their mid-twenties, and in girls it happens in their early twenties, which means they’ll be drawn to some of these challenges. without worrying about potential outcomes and consequences,” Panda says.
Low serotonin in the brain can also trigger feelings of emptiness, loneliness, low self-esteem, predisposing to internet challenges and spending a lot of time on mobile/internet. “Children with fragile self-esteem and impulse control disorders, or those with underlying depression, feelings of loneliness, substance abuse, or who come from a disturbed home environment are the ones at monitor,” says Panda. A thorough clinical evaluation and series of neuropsychological tests can provide a clearer picture of brain function.
However, before the pandemic, parents could think of digital detox and opt for attractive ways to keep their kids away from gadgets, but now it doesn’t seem easy. “Schools have not reopened and children are so dependent on their laptops and cell phones for entertainment and occupation. Parents should always remain vigilant and alert, as a slight lack and children will slip into the danger zone,” says Pramod. She saw her youngest playing online game and happily chatting with stranger, sharing intimate details like name, age, school, parents details etc. Pramod made his little one watch an animated film Keeping Kids Safe on the Internet, a retelling of the fable “The Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing”, to teach his child that Internet users may not be what they seem to be.
The onslaught of digital invasion in their children’s lives can have certain telltale signs, and parents need to watch out for these so they can act quickly. “If you notice your child is withdrawn from family interactions, has a disturbed sleep-wake cycle, or exhibits disobedience and disrespect, or has a disorganized lifestyle, increased stubbornness, irritability, outbursts anger, falling grades, neglecting studies or missing school, so don’t ignore and seek medical help,” suggests Kumar.
Coping with digital addiction involves medical management that includes the administration of anti-obsessive, anti-depressant, and anti-psychotic medications. Psychological support includes psychotherapy, behavioral therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy and family counseling to help children with obvious phone and social media addictions find balance.
Ensuring the safety of children
The issue requires a comprehensive effort from all stakeholders – parents and guardians, teachers and educators, researchers, civil society, policy makers and law enforcement.
Mohamed Mustafa, Founder and CEO, Developing Internet Safe Community (DISC) Foundation, a registered NGO initiated by a group of professional IT social engineers from various parts of India and the Middle East, worked to raise awareness mass for Safer Internet Day in India since the day appeared. This year on Safer Internet Day, the DISC Foundation will organize a few workshops and conduct awareness programs in India in coordination with international agencies. Expressing concern about how the seemingly closed and private cyberspace inspires young and immature users to trust anyone, leading them to be exploited by bad people, Mustafa says, “The problem of child abuse of children online is a worrying trend in the Indian context because child pornography has increased dramatically during the pandemic. People used to physically abuse children, and during the pandemic cyber predators are doing it online. The risks are multiplied by 2,000 in the online world. To alleviate this problem, we need to strengthen the law, law enforcement as well as the legal framework of the country.” His foundation works with a few agencies around the world to bring best practices to India and make the internet safer for all. , especially the most vulnerable, young children.
To add to this, Advocate Richa Srivastava says, “Government had launched the cybercrime reporting portal, https://cybercrime.gov.in. This was the result of a PIL filed in the Supreme Court by a renowned NGO based in Hyderabad, Prajwala. The portal makes it very easy to report cyber crimes related to women and children and any other cyber crimes. It also allows anonymous reporting.”
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Published on: Sunday 06 February 2022, 07:00 IST