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The Perils of the Internet

Parents beware. Do you know what your children see and hear on the Internet, who they meet, and what they share with others? Technology is a friend only if you let it be. It can be your worst enemy too. Inappropriate content, cyberbullying, and online predators are all real. Predators, through various applications can easily pry into websites your children interact with. They pose as a child or teen looking to make a new friend. They might prod your child to exchange personal information, such as address and phone number, or encourage them to call them, noting the phone number via caller ID. The harm these actions cause is unfortunately only the beginning.


Past one year, every one of us has been living online. We, working from home online, our children, learning from home online, teachers, teaching online, we trading goods online and everything else that comes to mind going online. It must be an irony of times that though, everyone was bound home, not many would honestly agree that they interacted with each other now, that they had the time and the means, let alone a friendly monitoring of what the children were up to on their laptop screens or what they were doing with their smart phones. Some children did learn dancing, spent time birdwatching, playing some musical instrument or learning to play one, or indulged in arts and crafts. There were many others who secretly surfed unwanted content and may have been maimed, that would take a long time to heal. Though the ‘Acts’ may provide some relief, do they really provide succour for the damage to the psyche of a child? Now that the pandemic seems to be on an extended mission of its own, can we have a list of Do’s and Don’ts for children and parents to follow?


For a beginning, can the children start following the family rules, and those set by the Internet service provider? Can we build a discipline not to ever post or trade personal pictures? Never to reveal personal information? Can you only use a screen name and not share passwords, other than with your parents? Don’t ever agree to get together in person with anyone met online without your parent’s approval and supervision. Do not ever respond to a threatening email, message, post, or text. Confide, always in your parents about any communication or conversation that was scary or hurtful.


Now for the parents. Have you as a parent, ever looked for warning signs of your child being targeted by an online predator? Your child may be spending long hours online, especially at night, may receive phone calls from people you don’t know. May even receive unsolicited gifts through mail. Your child may suddenly turn off the computer when you walk into the room or withdraw from family life and may be reluctant to discuss online activities. Why not keep a line of communication open and make sure they feel comfortable turning to you when faced with problems online? You must find time to read and understand the Ministry of Home Affairs released Handbook for Adolescents/Students on Cyber Safety and check their twitter handle (@CyberDost).


It does get a little trickier to monitor as your kids get older. How do you monitor their online activity when they carry a smartphone at all times? They probably want and need some privacy. This is healthy and normal, as they become independent. Internet can provide a safe “virtual” environment for exploring some newfound freedom only as long as adequate precautions are taken. But do discuss online experiences and the dangers of interacting with strangers online.


We have a ‘Children Act 2004’ that protects the interests of children and young people. However, this is neither here nor there. The Information Technology Act, 2000, and Indian Penal Code, 1860 also deal with cybercrime in the country. Multiple sections of the IT Act related to digital data, electronic devices, and cybercrimes were amended in 2008. The Act provides for several penalties. Unauthorised access to data and damaging of computer or computer network, vide section 43, Compensation for the failure of data protection vide section 43A, Punishment extending up to 3 years or fine which may extend to Rs. 1 Lakh for identity theft vide section 66C, Punishment extending up to 3 years or fine extending to Rs. 2 Lakh for violation of privacy vide section 66E, Punishment for publishing, browsing or transmitting child pornography in electronic form vide section 67B.  Evan as Indian Penal Code, 1860, through sections 354A and 354D provide punishment for cyberbullying and cyberstalking against women, they have no specific provisions for cybercrime against children. Though, cybercrimes like child trafficking, cyberbullying, pornography, and identity theft have some remedies, application of appropriate provisions of law and concluding them into punishable offences can be vexing.


To the credit of the government, the Ministry of Home Affairs did launch a scheme ‘Cyber Crime Prevention against Women and Children (CCPWC)’ under which an online National Cyber Crime Reporting Portal, ‘www.cybercrime.gov.in’ was launched in September 2018 to enable people to report cases pertaining to child pornography/child sexual abuse material, rape/gang rape images or sexually explicit content. However, this only empowers to lodge complaints anonymously or through the “Report and Track” option which necessitates more amendments in our laws. Is it time we drafted an exclusive Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) like in US, which helps protect kids younger than 13 when they’re online? It bars anyone from getting a child’s personal information without a parent knowing about it and agreeing to it first. Further, it prohibits a site from seeking any extra information than necessary to play a game or enter a contest.


The EdTech companies must be encouraged to develop effective IT Tools to control the kids’ access to adult material and help protect them from Internet predators. Some Internet service providers (ISPs) may provide parent-control options but is hardly explored by parents. Parents must also ensure use of SW that blocks access to certain sites and restrict personal information from being sent online and use programs that monitor and track online activity. It is always important to block objectionable material and teach kids safe and responsible online behaviour and keep an eye on their Internet use than cry over spilt milk.

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