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India: A country of cyberbullies?

A recent Intel Security report shows that a worrying number of Indian children are becoming victims as well as perpetrators of cyberbullying

Geetanjali Krishna 

India: a country of cyberbullies?

Some time ago, a teenager posted pictures of a sleepover with friends. The next morning, he awoke to a slew of jeering comments from classmates, alleging that the pictures were of gay encounters the boy had had. The more he tried to staunch the onslaught of comments, the worse they became. Victimised and backed into a corner, the boy swallowed every pill in his parents’ medicine cabinet, finally alerting his parents to the gravity of his problem.

A Delhi teen asked her mother for her debit card to buy clothes online. Weeks later, her mother noticed inappropriate lingerie and clothes in the 13-year-old’s closet. It transpired that when the girl had posted her pictures and received very few “likes”, she decided to pose in revealing clothes to attract more attention. The “likes” kept compelling her to pose in more and more revealing clothes. It was only after the parents consulted a counsellor that they realised that the conscious withholding of “likes” by her peers was an indirect form of bullying.

“In the last five years, I’ve seen a marked increase in the number of teens and tweens, or preteens, who seek counselling because they are being bullied online,” says psychiatrist Sunil Mittal, director, Delhi Psychiatric Centre. “Every week, I see at least two such cases.” With the rising number of connected devices in Indian households, tweens and teens are spending more time on the Internet than ever before. And much of their aggression, which was once channelised offline, is now converting into online bullying.

According to the recently-released Intel Security’s “Teens, Tweens and Technology Study 2015”, 81% of Indian respondents between eight and 16 are active on the social media networks. Of these, 22% have reported being bullied online — the highest in the four countries surveyed (Australia, USA and Singapore being the other three). That’s not all. As many as 52% of Indian children indicated that they had bullied people over the social media — again the highest of the four countries surveyed. A whopping 65% of respondents report witnessing cruel behaviour online. “Cyberbullying is a fast-growing trend that Indian parents and educators can’t afford to ignore,” says Melanie Duca, marketing director, consumer-Asia Pacific at Intel Security.

India: a country of cyberbullies?
According to the Intel Security blog, 'Cybermum India', cyberbullying can take many different forms — tagging inappropriate pictures, spreading rumours, insulting comments and filming and posting videos online, for instance. While both forms of bullying can have equally negative long-term consequences for victims, cyberbullying has an additional fallout. Malicious tags, cruel comments and unwanted pictures, once uploaded, can never be completely erased from the web and run the danger of being resurrected any time. Also, experts note that online bullying often tends to be more vicious, and the more the victim protests, the longer it tends to last.

What is it about the Internet that is spawning this aggression? “The apparent anonymity of the Internet turns even the meek into bullies,” says Mittal. “By its very nature, Internet has created opportunities for deviant behaviour.” With an increase in the number of social networking sites, tweens and teens are basing much of their self-esteem on their online personas. As many as 89% of the tweens and teens polled in the Intel Security survey felt that “likes” and “favourites” on their profiles were very important for their self image. And, 78% felt that Facebook was the platform most likely to be used for open criticism and bullying, followed by Twitter (7%).

The question on the minds of parents and educators alike is how cyberbullying can be contained. “First off, we have to teach our children about online safety just as we teach them about protecting themselves offline,” says Mittal. Further, there is a growing need for software that can screen potentially harmful messages. “It is becoming increasingly difficult for parents to keep track of their teens’ online activities because of the rising number of connected devices,” says Duca. “So, when we talk of cyberbullying and cybercrime in general, we need cross-device protection.”

There’s reason for more optimism. Duca points out that in the 2014 Intel Security survey, 57% of children said they would not know what to do if they were harassed or bullied online. In 2015, 71% victims reported taking some action against bullying. “Whether through blocking unwanted messages, reporting bullying behaviour or complaining against bullies, it is clear that more and more Indian teens are refusing to be silent victims any more, and that’s really good news,” says she.

Tell-tale signs that your teen is being cyberbullied

* Avoids use of mobile devices or computers
* Suddenly deletes social media accounts
* Becomes moodier after receiving emails and/or messages
* Is more secretive than usual about online activities
* Is reluctant to go to school and avoids social contact
* Grades and school performance fall
* Appears more frustrated, impatient or angry than usual
* Has trouble sleeping

How to deal with cyberbullying

* Take it seriously
* Report, if possible, the bully to his or her school and/or parents
* Report the cyberbullying to digital providers
* Seek professional counselling for the victim

Trisha Prabhu, who has created ReThink
Trisha Prabhu, who has created ReThink
A software to help bullies rethink

In the fall of 2013, Trisha Prabhu, an Indian teen in Chicago, read about an 11-year old girl from Florida who had committed suicide after having been repeatedly cyberbullied by her classmates. She was outraged and heartbroken, and decided to do something about it. The result was ReThink, her award-winning patented software that approaches the issue of cyberbullying from its source — the mindset of the bully.

ReThink is an anti-cyberbullying software based on the premise that the adolescent brain is like a car without brakes. In the heat of the moment, at a point of peer-pressure, with a sense of urgency and desire to “fit in,” teens often say or do things they later regret. ReThink uses context-sensitive word screening, sending out prompts that enable adolescents to consider the possible consequences of posting a hurtful message before actually posting it. The filter gives him or her the chance to reconsider this decision. “This stops the bullying even before it takes place,” says Prabhu, its 15-year-old inventor. So, “the biggest advantage of ReThink is that it not only helps the victim, but also helps the bully change their behaviour and help them develop key decision-making skills on and off the Internet.”

She presented and tested her hypothesis for the Google Science Fair 2014 (where she was among the top 15 finalists), after conducting 1,500 trials in her school. Her study concluded that 93.4% of her subjects decided to change their message once they had time to rethink it.

“ReThink enables teens to become better digital citizens,” says Prabhu who has spoken passionately about using ReThink to conquer cyberbullying on several national and international platforms and forums.

Safety priorities
India: Cyber criminals and identity theft seem to be the bigger concerns for parents. Cyberbullying is No. 3, at 57%
Australia: Cyberbullying the most discussed topic at 88%
USA: Cyberbullying the most discussed topic at 80%
Singapore: Cyberbullying the most discussed topic at 71%
Have bullied people over social media
India: 52%
Australia: 38%
USA: 35%
Singapore: 29%
Keep their locations switched on for social media platforms
India: 57%
Australia: 24%
USA: 36%
Singapore: 33%
Active on social media networks
India: 81%
Australia: 84%
USA: 70%
Singapore: 70%
Source: Intel Security’s “Teens, Tweens and Technology Study 2015”

First Published: Sat, November 07 2015. 00:15 IST