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India’s Battle To Keep Our Children Safe Online

The proportion of people aged between 15 and 24 who are online is estimated to be over 70 per cent worldwide, according to an ITU report. The report also goes to add that more than half of the world’s households have access to the Internet. While all this may draw a rosy picture of digitally empowered societies, the Internet has also opened the door for exploitation of the vulnerable. Today’s generation of connected, savvy children has become the unwitting victim of numerous abuses online.

Studies into children and young people’s online behaviour indicate that they use the Internet for activities such as research, social messaging, gaming and learning activities. Eventually, even before they could realise it, children end up being victims of cyber bullying, inappropriate contact, identity theft, fraud and exposure to adult content. In Indian societies, it wreaks havoc on not only the lives of children and their parents, but also on the very social fabric of the community that they live in. To set the context, cyber safety does not end with just protecting children; it invariably extends to families, communities, and consumers.

What we need is an ecosystem that fosters the undertaking of steps to support digital safety, security and privacy. It is important that for our children to develop digital life skills in a safe environment, the industry and government must work together with experts and advocacy groups to identify and ensure that the Internet evolves in a healthy and responsible way. Globally, online protection for children is a much recognised and discussed topic and an agenda for many governments, but India has taken a longer time to realise it. Given the state of poor digital literacy in India, lack of online safety measure, and the fact that a large percent of children is taking to the Internet and social messaging, there is a rising consensus that protecting today’s children requires a collective effort from all stakeholders, including service providers, content providers, civil society and regulatory authorities.

In September 2016, UNICEF India launched the first comprehensive report on child online safety in India. According to the report, offline forms of crime and violence against children are finding new forms of expression in the online world and their effects on children are alarming. By staying anonymous online and impersonating others, offenders become emboldened to commit offensive and criminal acts, successfully bypassing the deterrent potential of laws. The report goes on to add that cybercrimes against children in India are under-reported and have received very little attention; in fact, such crimes are not included in the National Crime Records Bureau statistics as a separate category.

As a nation, we still lack the ability to protect our children from online abuse and respond effectively to harmful content. In fact, there is widespread lack of awareness about child online abuse and exploitation among parents, teachers, police and policymakers. Responding to these threats does not require the passing of legislation alone.

Given the nature and growth of the Internet, its ecosystem, strengths, and risks, there can be no single agency or government institution that can ensure the safety of children from online threats and violence. It is important that all government institutions, private sector, academia, and civil society to work together to build the mechanism to prevent and respond to the specific threats and risks posed to children.

The cyber safety brigade has a full time job the world over. The list of online risks continues to grow each passing day, the latest being the issue of fake news. It is on such a backdrop that one should welcome a motivated and earnest attempt by Cybersafety India to be the harbinger of change in the country. A brainchild of the global consumer protection activist, Dr. Parry Aftab, Cybersafety India envisages using the power of grassroots volunteers to help deliver its message and assist in the building of a digitally aware community.

Current forms of child online abuse and exploitation in India (Source: UNICEF, 2016)

  • Cyberbullying: Emotional harassment, defamation and social exposure, intimidation, social exclusion
  • Online sexual abuse: Distribution of sexually explicit and violent content, sexual harassment
  • Online sexual exploitation: Production, distribution and use of child sexual abuse material (CSAM), or child pornography, “sextortion”, “revenge pornography”
  • Cyber extremism: Ideological indoctrination and recruitment, threats of extreme violence
  • Online commercial fraud: Identity theft, phishing, hacking, financial fraud
  • Habit formation and online enticement to illegal behaviours: Access to alcohol, cheating, plagiarism, gambling, drug trafficking, sexting and self-exposure
  • Grooming: Preparing a child, significant adults and the environment for sexual abuse and exploitation or ideological manipulation