cyberbullying in India

War against cyberbullying: How Indian teens can be protected and empowered

Soulveda speaks to experts to dissect the myriad aspects of cyberbullying and understand the steps parents, teachers and teens—especially victims—can follow to lead the fight against the issue.
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Social media is a perfect tool to connect with people. It is an opportunity to interact with the world at large and express opinions, thoughts and ideas freely. How free, however, do we feel when expressing ourselves? And is our freedom free from all judgement?

The answer is not a simple yes or a no. As long as this freedom helps us tell our stories, we can’t have enough of it. But the moment this freedom turns against us, we run for shelter.

The current social media landscape is rife with bullying and trolling, which makes you question the definition of freedom. Cyberbullying is touted as one of the most potent threats to individual wellbeing among active social media users. A celebrity or a regular Joe, no one is beyond it.

UNICEF defines cyberbullying as “bullying with the use of digital technologies” and further adds that “it can take place on social media, messaging platforms, gaming platforms and mobile phones. It is repeated behaviour, aimed at scaring, angering or shaming those who are targeted.”

In recent years, India has witnessed a massive surge in the number of smartphone usage, especially among adolescents and young adults. According to a survey conducted by the Mobile Ecosystem Forum in 2019, the highest penetration rate among smartphone users was in the age group of 16 to 24 years. As more and more youngsters in India are getting hooked to smartphones and using social media apps on them, cases of cyberbullying are also on the rise. According to a study 2020 conducted by Child Rights and You (CRY), around 9.2 percent of 630 adolescents surveyed in the Delhi-NCR had experienced cyberbullying and only half of them reported it to teachers, guardians or social media companies.

An earlier report from 2018 that compiled data from 28 countries had shown that Indian youngsters are the most cyberbullied in the world. “Indian parents remained among the highest to express confidence that their children were cyberbullied at least sometimes, a number that only grew from 2011 to 2018,” read the report. A recent social media campaign also highlighted the issue of cyberbullying in India and asked citizens to counter the hate by supporting the victims.

As India grapples with the COVID-19 pandemic, it has become pertinent to address cyberbullying as physical classes have moved to digital platforms. Soulveda speaks to experts to dissect the myriad aspects of cyberbullying and understand the steps parents, teachers and teens—especially victims—can follow to lead the fight against the issue.

Understand why bullying happens online and offline

Before attempting to curb cyberbullying, it is critical to understand why it happens and how teenagers, parents and school authorities can step in to address the issue. According to clinical psychologist Dr Joy Banerjee, people indulge in cyberbullying because “they think that they are hiding from a place and they can say something.” He further adds, “You have to tell the victims that cyberbullying is done by people who do not have the strength or courage to talk to you face-front.” Banerjee says that a significant percentage of bullying happens on teenagers’ physical features and he recommends them to become more comfortable with their physiology and appearance.

On the other hand, child neuropsychologist Akila Sadasivan emphasises the need for communication between teens and adults, and teachers and students. She feels that teachers should address the mental health needs of teenagers to address offline bullying. “We are not aware of the mental health of the children that we deal with. We don’t see them as individuals who might carry a lot of psychological baggage. If teachers can tune into the psychological needs and understand what is developmentally okay and acceptable for the children, their conversations with them can change qualitatively,” she adds.

Sadasivan says that oftentimes teenagers don’t report instances of bullying because they don’t see it as such. She believes that bullying, in general, could be stopped if parents and teachers can communicate with teenagers about the signs of bullying, what they should look out for, how can they deal with it and when should they reach out to elders.

“Online predators leave digital footprints and they have a pattern. If we can identify that ahead of time and prevent it from happening, then nothing like it,” Sadasivan says.

Regulate the internet usage

As teenagers are becoming dependent on the internet due to virtual education, their parents and guardians need to keep a check on the time they spend online. Teenagers’ online presence remains largely unmonitored, which makes them more vulnerable to cyberbullying. “The pandemic has increased the online presence of young children, and as a consequence, they are opening themselves up to a lot of peer pressure that ends up as bullying,” Sadasivan says.

Owing to an increasing number of social media apps, it has become easier for teenagers to develop an addiction to online networking. They can spend long hours on these apps without even noticing where that time flies by. Hence, parents and guardians should effectively regulate teenagers’ internet usage, to protect them from cyberbullying. “Set a schedule during the day when your children can browse through the internet after finishing their classes. Turn off the WiFi during hours when they are not supposed to use the internet. Make sure that the teenagers are not communicating with strangers online and sharing their personal information with them,” Sadasivan suggests.

Moreover, she feels that parents “also need to draw a line” when it comes to their own screen time. “And if they walk the talk, then their children will also follow suit.” Sadasivan urges parents to “make a conscious effort” to stay offline for at least an hour every day so that they can spend more time with their children.

Parents should have an open dialogue with teens

Parents should make an effort to understand the behaviour of teens who were cyberbullied and facilitate communication with them. “Whether the child has isolated themself, become violent, disconnected with studies, or behaves aggressively, the predominant factor is to let the victim speak up and express their feelings,” says Banerjee.

Sadasivan has the same opinion on this matter. She says that parents should not blame their children for becoming victims of cyberbullying, look for “safe practices that can help prevent future episodes from happening” and address the psychological damage that the victims go through. Instead of playing a blame game, parents “need to take collective responsibility and educate themselves to understand why it happened and see if they can help their child recover and make sure it doesn’t happen again,” she adds.

Active counselling for victims should be normalised

The topic of mental health still continues to be a stigma in our society, due to which victims seldom speak up about their feelings even when they experience bullying as they fear being labelled as a “mad or weak,” says Sadasivan. Talking about the role counsellors can play in helping victims, she highlights the need to establish trust with them. “The moment the child, irrespective of their age, believes that they can trust you, they will reach out when they feel the need to do so,” she says.

Furthermore, Sadasivan recommends making counselling a norm for schools and parents. She highlights the need to organise monthly sessions for parents and to establish a connection between them and professional therapists to “keep the dialogue open” and to take collective responsibility to wage the war against bullying of any kind.

Seek legal help against cyberbullying

Parents should seek legal help to report cases of cyberbullying and protect their children from harm. “These perpetrators will have multiple victims. The parents need to be aware that their child has legal rights and they have a larger responsibility to prevent this from happening,” she says while adding that the anonymity of the teenagers must be protected while doing so.

Social media platforms should do their part as well in the fight against cyberbullying. They have technology like artificial intelligence (AI) at their disposal that can prevent such instances from happening. “Online predators leave digital footprints and they have a pattern. If we can identify that ahead of time and prevent it from happening, then nothing like it,” Sadasivan says.

The Indian government has set up helpline number 155260 for victims of cyberbullying and harassment along with other cybercrimes. You can also register a complaint on the government’s National Cyber Crime Reporting Portal www.cybercrime.gov.in.

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