When it comes to safeguarding their children in physical space, parents put in much effort and ingenuity, spend lots of time and resources. The comings and goings of children are monitored, their friends scrutinised, their activities put under careful watch. Children are warned about strangers befriending them outside home and school; sternly forbidden to accept goodies and go off with someone unknown. After all, hardly a day passes without news about some outrage perpetrated upon tender boys and girls by depraved people. Yet within the secure confines of home, under the noses of parents and guardians, children are engaging in high risk behaviour in cyber space. Strangers are chatting up with them freely online, then following up to clandestinely meet children face to face. Meanwhile, children are playing a cat-and-mouse game with parents, determinedly keeping the elders off their digital tracks. All this and more have been revealed in a survey by Intel Security titled ‘Teens, Tweens and Technology Survey 2015’ released recently. It examines the online behaviours and social networking habits of children and teegers in India aged between 8 to 16 years. The biggest shocker is that over 50 percent Indian children have admitted already meeting or wanting to meet a stranger they first met online.
While nearly half the children have witnessed cruel behaviour on social networks, more than half the children have themselves bullied, made fun of or tagged mean pictures of others online. About 61 percent children have accessed other people’s e-mail or social media account to dig up private information, pry into their love or sex lives and steal their intimate photographs. On the surface, most children do discuss with parents issues like cyber crime and identity theft, privacy settings, cyber-bullying, online reputation or popularity among friends. But the parent-children trust factor is not performing as well as it should. The survey has revealed that 64 percent children hide at least part of their online activity from parents, 56 percent children have said they would change their online behaviour if they knew parents were watching, while 43 percent children are already using anonymous mes or aliases for their social media profiles. But moving alone and unescorted in big, bad cyberworld, most Indian children are carelessly posting their photos, e-mail IDs, phone numbers, home pictures and addresses online. They could be easily targeted by paedophiles, child pornographers, cyber crimils and a host of very unpleasant characters lurking in the Web. In their secret zeal to trust strangers more than parents or guardians, quite a few children have been left victimised. They have been stalked, bullied, kidpped, sexually abused, blackmailed to steal and provide parent’s debit/credit cards with PIN numbers, bank accounts or other sensitive information.
While nearly half the parents surveyed were aware of the risks of children meeting strangers online, a surprisingly low number of parents (17 percent) were actually interested in finding out if their own children were doing so. Interestingly, Indian students (81 percent) have outdone students of countries like US and Singapore (70 per cent) when it comes to using of social media. Faced with such a situation, about 90 percent parents in the survey have said they would monitor all of their children’s online activities across all devices ‘if they could’. But there lies the catch — children are tech-savvy, easily staying two steps ahead of parents in this game. So what must parents do to protect their children in cyberworld? Information technology experts have long been suggesting schools and homes to come together to educate children about risky online behaviour and good Internet etiquette. With computer teaching becoming universal in schools, this can be one aspect to focus upon in parents-teachers meetings. This effort needs to be followed at home by parents by keeping communication lines open with children, unobtrusively talking with them about online dangers. Children must be made aware early on how much of their persol data can leak online and be misused by others, due to proliferation of web-connected devices like smartphones, tablets and laptops. There is no altertive to parents keeping abreast with IT devices and apps their children are using, the content they are surfing, the social networks they are frequenting. As in the ages past, it is again the lot of parents to shoulder the difficult, sometimes thankless, responsibility of keeping their children safe — until they are old enough to look out for themselves and understand the consequences of what they do.