Covid to Cyberbullying – The Butterfly Effect!

Aarthi Raghavan: Someone went to a market in some part of the world, came back with a flu and four months later the world collapses into one of the greatest human disasters of the century. The press is awash with stories of the human crisis. Migrant families trapped under bridges and subways. Families who have lost their homes and livelihood. The rising global death toll and people mourning the loss of their loved ones. These are all open; visible and extensively covered by every form of media on the planet.

But a different kind of crisis is brewing underneath all this: The emotional effects of social isolation, especially on teenagers and young adults.

The youngest nation on the planet that is home to one of the largest adolescent populations is facing a new kind of crisis.

Adolescence is dubbed as that tumultuous period of transition into adulthood, where teenagers like to push boundaries as they try to forge a unique identity for themselves, separate from their parents. While teenage is already a turbulent time even under the best of circumstances, the lockdown combined with the power of social media has created a whole new level of toxicity to an already potent brew.

It’s worthwhile to note that human beings are intrinsically social animals with a need to be part of a pack (or at least a small peer group of likeminded individuals). Schools and colleges provide this under a largely controlled and supervised environment.

With many an idle mind now confined to the reigns of their devices for extended periods, the need to be visible on several online platforms has taken a centre stage like never before. The last few months has witnessed a surge in social media activity and teenagers are spending more time online than ever before.

The term ‘Online bullying’ has taken on a whole new dimension and chat rooms are hot spots of bullying and targeted character assassinations. Even the most mild mannered of children find themselves grouping into herd mentality, blindly following a pack order.

I reminisce of a simpler time; an era gone by; where home was a safe haven where no one could hurt you. You lost all contact with the outside world and even the family phone had a restrictive use of time and anything beyond 5 minutes came with a stern warning.

Enter the era of the smartphone, and we witness a communication revolution. There are changes in peer group structures in ways we are unable to fathom. A single playground bully has now been replaced by hundreds of online bullies and no child is safe, even inside their own home. In fact, they are probably the least safe when they are alone inside their room.

The lack of structured activities (courtesy the Lockdown) has brought with it unsupervised time, like never before among the student community. While it feels like an extended summer holiday, this is not a fun family period with movies and outings! Social distancing is the new normal and entertainment cannot be replaced with an unrestricted use of the internet.

While kids may not vocalise everything, make no mistake; they are aware that things are changing in their home & their society. The space they once called a home now feels like a prison cell.

Their great escape comes within the realms of the internet. A world where they are able to behave without consequences… a world they believe has no accountability. Online bullying is currently at its worst best. Kids find it perfectly acceptable to create temporary chat rooms targeted to bully a child, only to delete it at the end of the conversation. The recent Instagram chat group #Boyslockerroom that hit national headlines, resulted in the arrest of a 15-year-old.

Everything online leaves a digital footprint and comes with consequences. If a child is bullied in the online space, every piece of data, every chat can be recovered. Cyberbullying is a punishable offense under the Indian Penal Code.

Under Section 66-A of the Information Technology Act, “sending any message (through an electronic device) that is grossly offensive or has menacing character; any communication which he/she knows to be false, but for the purpose of causing insult, annoyance and criminal intimidation is punishable up to 3 years with a fine”. Parents have a choice: get involved, create supervised schedules and track online activity or, suffer the consequences. After all, these are Corona Times!

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