India needs a strong legal and policy framework against cyberbullying: WNS Cares Foundation

WNS Cares Foundation (WCF) is the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) arm of WNS Global Services Pvt Ltd. With education at the core of its agenda, WCF helps to bridge the educational gap faced by marginalized children by pursuing a tri-fold path — educate, empower, and enrich.

Here, Shamini Murugesh, Honorary Chief Mentor, WNS Cares Foundation and Creator CyberSmart, tells us more about Importance of cybersafety for kid and the steps tech companies need to take towards this. Excerpts from an interview: 

DQ: The rise of e-education due to Covid-19 has opened new possibilities and ways of learning. However, it has also put children at the stake of cyberbullying, cyber threats, etc. What is your take on this?

Shamini: During the Covid-19 crisis, the educational dynamic shifted entirely from classrooms to cyberspace. Consequently, millions of students began spending more time on the Internet, for both educational and recreational purposes. This sudden surge in screen time exposed these children to the dark underbelly of the internet, including online bullies. According to recent research, 37% of parents across India said that their child was bullied online, with 14% of that total saying that the bullying occurred on a regular basis. These are truly alarming figures and are expected to rise in the future, given the uptick in the time spent online.

As the demand for smartphones and the Internet continues to grow in India, children will increasingly become more vulnerable to cyberbullying. A survey of 174 Delhi-based middle school students has revealed that while 8% of them engaged in cyberbullying, around 17%were the victims. Currently, the country needs a strong legal and policy framework against cyberbullying. However, the demand for proper legislation to combat this menace is gaining critical mass. 

For example, the Government of Hong Kong is taking necessary measures to prevent cyberbullying and matters concerning national security, including those relating to schools, universities, and social organisations; and promote national security education in schools and universities, as well as through social organisations, the media, the internet, and other means to raise awareness of national security.

In the meantime, schools and parents should prioritise learning the fundamentals of cybersafe behaviour to ensure cyberspace safety for children. 

DQ: How is early exposure to the internet harmful for kids?

Shamini: In a digital-first world, technology naturally pervades our day-to-day lives. Children, aptly called digital natives, use it at home, school and everywhere else! Today, 3 in 5 children use the Internet at home. That’s 60% compared to only 11%, 20 years ago. We do know that technology has a significant positive impact. However, there are some negative effects of technology overuse that have serious consequences for children’s lives. 

Problems with relationships and social skills: Kids are increasingly using mobile devices, and they can become addicted to them, resulting in insufficient time spent with family and/or friends. They are more likely to communicate virtually with friends, sharing photos and texting online, than to meet them in-person. (Missing the in-person interactions where one reads body language signals)

Health issues: Children’s health is at stake due to the excessive use of mobile devices. They engage in fewer physical activities as they become more reliant on these devices. Online gaming is often combined with snacking, obviating the need for a well-balanced diet. Children spend less time playing outside, running, and burning calories as they spend more time in front of those screens. These habits can lead to weight gain, poor eyesight, and lack of social engagement. 

Browsing online can be dangerous: When we go online, we are frequently exposed to phishing, viruses and other dangers disguised as advertisements. Most adults are aware of these risks and can easily avoid them, but what about children? They are more vulnerable to cyberattacks, phishing and exposure to adult content due to their curiosity to explore new things. However, with proper monitoring, they can always be directed away from those dangers

Overuse of mobile devices can have a negative impact on sleep quality: Over 72% of all children have at least one device in their bedroom, according to recent studies. Kids are being kept awake by their phones, even when they’re not using them. Sleep deprivation can have serious ramifications for our brain. 

During sleep, the brain performs ‘housekeeping’ tasks, such as clearing out unimportant items and restoring nerve networks in preparation for a new day. However, sleeping less means depriving our brain of essential nutrients

DQ: What steps do parents and school authorities need to take to save children against cyber threats/cyberbullying?

Shamini: Technology is a fantastic tool for sharing information. However, like any other tool that children learn to use, parents must supervise and set limits to ensure that their children have a safe, enjoyable experience. Cyberbullying is a relatively new threat with potentially long-term consequences. Here are some suggestions for staying safe online and avoiding cyberbullying: 

Know what technology you are dealing with. If you allow your children to use cell phones, have a MySpace or Facebook page, or work with technology, you should learn how to use it as well. Your kids can be your teachers by showing you what they are up to on the Internet. 

Take an interest in your children’s online lives in the same way you would in any other aspect of their lives. Educate your children about bullying. It is possible that your child is having trouble reading social signs and does not know what they are doing is hurtful. Remind your child that bullying others can have legal consequences and the instances can be reported. Parents should be vigilant of the warning signs – especially, if a child is showing any mental, physical, or emotional disturbances 

Schools must provide a secure learning environment for students. Teachers and coaches must make it clear to students that bullying is not tolerated and that such behaviour will be penalized. Students can better understand the seriousness of bullying by creating an anti-bullying document. Both the students and their parents/guardians can sign and return the document to the school office. 

Teachers and administrators can also help students who are facing difficulty in adjusting or making friends. They can facilitate friendships or provide ‘jobs’ for these students to execute during lunch and recess – this will ensure that they do not feel isolated or become targets for bullying

DQ: What steps can tech companies take to address this issue?

Ans: Tech companies can play an instrumental role in helping address the cyber threats posed to children. They can establish security guidelines and dispute forums in addition to providing in-depth education on such threats. (Work with multiple actors to ensure this, with participatory architecture).

DQ: How can technology help save children against cyberbullying and threats/exposure to irrelevant ads and content?

Shamini: Technology-enabled platforms can help shield children from cyberbullying and related threats in more ways than one. Some examples include:

* Teach children and teenagers how to call a helpline
* Organize awareness campaigns to educate kids on cyberbullying
* Teach how to report inappropriate messages by taking screenshots of texts and social media posts
* Inform about the tools available on various social media platforms for reporting abuse
* Educate on how to recognize, block, and report offensive language/content.

DQ: How is WNS Cares Foundation working towards addressing this concern?

Shamini: At WNS Cares Foundation (WCF), cybersafety has been a dominant theme that cuts across the multiple educational programs we conduct across the globe. The launch of CyberSmart, India’s first holistic cybersafety education portal, in May 2020 was a part of our ongoing efforts to seed cybersafe behaviour among children. The portal was launched nationally by Ajay Prakash Sawhney, Secretary, MeitY, in partnership with NASSCOM, and is available in 10 Indian languages. 

CyberSmart enables gamified learning using thematic quiz-based modules based on curriculum advisory and challenges that children encounter in cyberspace.

Since the launch of the portal, WCF has partnered with several ecosystem partners including other not-for-profits, state and central government organizations, educational institutions, and platforms to ensure widespread reach. WCF’s partners for CyberSmart include Atal Tinkering Labs (NITI Aayog), Tech Mahindra Foundation, Robotex India Foundation, Pratham Infotech Foundation, Hyderabad City Security Council and Childline India Foundation. The CyberSmart program has entered the ‘Asia Book of Records’ for completing 7,000+ certifications in 2 hours. 

Recently, CyberSmart has hit a significant milestone in its journey – it has crossed the 1 million certified learners mark.

DQ: What steps do you expect government/tech companies should take?

Shamini: Online child sexual abuse has become a global safety issue, resulting in a generation of victims, with every third internet user under the age of 18 affected by it. Sexual exploitation and abuse are only one type of harmful conduct that affects young people online. 

Cyberbullying, impersonation, trolling, harassment, exposure to hate speech, encouragement of self-harm, identity theft and phishing are all on the rise. It is high time to design a smarter approach to combat this challenge, supported by a strategy that keeps children’s online journeys at its heart. 

So far, regulators and the tech industry have focused largely on the ‘midstream’ stages of young people’s online experiences: content upload, access, and detection. The key to creating a safer environment for children may also lie further downstream. Government agencies and technology companies should collaborate to develop effective digital-led interventions that will play a critical role in protecting young people from harmful online content and activities. 

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