When she was 3, Avvalprit Kaur used to sit on her father’s lap while he surfed the Internet. By the time her next birthday rang in, she was online herself—playing games on Barbie and Walt Disney websites. She started blogging at 9, and now at 12 she’s also on Twitter and has a Facebook account. Her father, Simarprit Singh, has talked to her about the dangers of the Internet but does not feel that limiting access is the key to keeping her safe from lurkers and criminals online.
“She asked me for a Facebook account and I refused. Later I learnt that she had gotten a friend to help and opened an account. I talked to her about it, but promised to keep it live till she turns 14 and is legally allowed to have an account,” he says.
Kaur intuitively demonstrates the dexterity required of the online medium. On her blog she details her father’s bookshelf and the cars she loves. On Twitter she moans about the last class in school which seemed “like a marathon”. It is inevitable that she meets all kinds of people online. “Twitter users can be abusive at times. But I scan her page and ask her to unfollow anyone who uses the F-word or talks badly in any way. But you can’t prevent everything,” Singh concedes. Though he has activated an auto-forward for her email account, whereby he gets a copy of all the emails she receives, he has not really checked it.
Modern-day parents, gripped with the idea of their child’s need for privacy, tend to get lax about monitoring what the children do online. But several dangers lurk. So much so that 62% of children worldwide have had a negative online experience. In India, that number is 77%, according to the Norton Online Family Report, which was released on Wednesday. And what makes it worse is that only 50% of parents in India even know about their child’s bad experience.
Aditi Gamat, 11, is a sensible child when it comes to the Internet. Though she spends anything from 30 minutes to 2 hours surfing the Net—playing games and emailing—she does not have a Facebook account, which is a good thing according to her. Often, though, she gets emails from people whose names sound familiar. “Sometimes I think these could be from my uncle or someone else I know and click on them. Then I realize it’s spam,” she says. Shena Gamat, her mother, keeps close tabs on Aditi as a person, but does not actively monitor what she does on the Internet.
Though the only negative in Gamat’s online experience so far has been the disappointment that the email was not from her uncle, others have had it far worse.
“Parents do worry about predators, but they seem to be overlooking more common threats, such as cyberbullying. And more than half of all families are putting themselves at risk through children’s unchecked downloading behaviour,” says Marian Merritt, Norton’s Internet safety advocate.
Most children get online to either play games or for help with their homework. And since they tend to surf more freely—without restricting themselves to familiar websites—they put themselves at a much higher risk of being victims of cybercrime. “A 13-year-old boy isn’t going to tell you if he’s searched for and seen a naked woman. But he may get upset if he innocently comes across indecent images or downloads a virus. It’s crucial that children know their parents will listen to them and partner with them to set things right. If they think they’ll be blamed or punished, they’ll simply push things underground,” Merritt says.
Mumbai-based Akash Kumar, 13, is a veteran on the Net. He has been online since he was 6. His mother, Chitra Kumar, knows all his passwords and most often he signs up with her email ID. He is on Facebook, he knows what spam is, he has on several occasions advised his mother on which websites are safe for her. But probe him a bit and chinks in this loosely monitored system appear. Akash has around 150 friends on Facebook; of them, around 10 are people he does not know in real life. He befriended them because he was playing Mafia Wars and the more friends you have playing the game, the easier it is for you to move up to the higher levels. Though he has not had any negative experience with them, he is leaving himself vulnerable.
Companies whose target audience is children also play safe when they connect with them on the Internet. However, a foolproof security system is yet to emerge. “If we look at our consumers, our target audience for the business is kids till the age of 14. Trust and safety is a big thing. We have a 24x7 moderation team that monitors every user that logs on to the website. There is parental consent required for every user that signs up for the website (parents have to confirm by email). If we want to stay in the space of kids’ entertainment, these are the necessary costs that we have to bear,” says Benjamin Grubbs, regional director, Turner Entertainment Interactive Media, otherwise known as the folks who run Cartoon Network.
While most parents, including Singh, Gamat and Kumar, have spoken to their children about Internet safety, they do not really enforce its implementation.
The Norton survey says that 68% of Indian parents have laid down some house rules to regulate what their children do on the Internet. However, only 34% have set parental controls on the computer. While you may implicitly trust what your child tells you, a little snooping around their browsing history is mandatory. Passionate and affronted speeches about the need for their privacy notwithstanding.
• 23% of Indian children say their parents have no idea what they do online.
• Average number of hours per week a child in India spends on the Net: 8.69
• 70% of Indian parents have spoken to their children about safe online habits. But only 34% have set parental controls on the family computer
• 16% of Indian children access the Net from their mobiles
Tips for monitoring
• Set parental controls on the browser
• Check the history tab
• Talk about why monitoring—as opposed to prying—is necessary
• Insist they only add friends they know and not ‘friends of friends’
• Have your children add you as a friend so you can see who their friends are
• Make sure your child tells you if someone online wants to meet them in person
• Always go with your child if you agree to his meeting a peer in real life
• Regularly check phone bills and account activity
• Make sure phones are left and charged in a family room, not taken into bedrooms at night
Varuni Khosla contributed to this story.
SO LOUNGE | AM I DONE
If you are tired of nagging your children to do their chores properly, the cool iPhone app ‘Am I Done?’ can help. The app comes with six icons—washing hands, brushing teeth, etc.—but you can interpret these to be any activity you like.
When your child comes out after having ostensibly washed her hands, you use the app as a detector. You run it over the palms of the hand and a green radar-type screen appears. There are two secret buttons at the bottom. If you think your child has done a good job, you press the right button. An animated penguin gives a “cool” certificate. If not, a sad raccoon appears to urge the child to “try again”.
The graphics and the radar screen are good enough to fool children who are 3-10 years old. Sure, it’s trickery but hey, they would rather have a sad raccoon asking them to redo their chores than a monster parent. And it saves you the “you just don’t love me” extortions. ‘Am I done?’ can be downloaded from the iTunes store for $0.99 (around Rs45.50).