Mumbai: Around 9.2% of 630 adolescents surveyed in Delhi-National Capital Region had experienced cyberbullying and half of them had not reported it to teachers, guardians or the social media companies concerned, a recent study by Child Rights and You (CRY), a non-governmental organisation, found.

Vulnerability rose with internet use: 22.4% of respondents (aged 13-18 years) who used the internet for longer than three hours a day were vulnerable to online bullying, while up to 28% of respondents who used the internet for more than four hours a day faced cyberbullying, concluded the study titled ‘Online Study and Internet Addiction’, released on February 18, 2020.

One in four adolescents also reported seeing a morphed image or video of themselves, and 50% of these were not reported to the police, the study found.

Cyberbullying is defined as harassment through digital devices such as computers, laptops, smartphones and tablets, and can occur over social media, in chat rooms and on gaming platforms.

Cases of cyberstalking or bullying of women or children increased by 36% from 542 in 2017 to 739 in 2018, data released recently by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) showed. Meanwhile, the conviction rate for cyberstalking or bullying of women and children fell 15 percentage points from 40% in 2017 to 25% in 2018. However, during the same period, the pendency percentage saw an increase of 1 percentage point to 96%, the data show.

Yet, the reported cases of threatening/blackmail fell 28.3% from 311 to 223 during the same period, which experts said is largely due to underreporting.

In all, there has been a 25% increase in the number of cybercrime cases from 2017 to 2018, the NCRB data show.

Why cyberbullying

There are three specific impulses attached to cyberbullying, as per Nishant Shah, professor at the Institute of Culture and Aesthetics of Digital Media at the Leuphana University in Germany. “One is the naturalisation of violence that is common on social media,” he said. “Second, it deals with anonymous or distantly mediated interaction which takes away both the human presence and the social empathy which is often encoded in our communication. Third, it refers to the orchestrated algorithmic structures that target specific people in order to silence them or to harass them through abuse of power.”

Globally, one in three internet users (33%) is a child, as per a 2016 estimate by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). The more recent India Internet Report 2019 suggested that in India, two in three internet users (66%) are between 12 and 29 years of age.

Lasting impact

Shreya Singh*, 21, an undergraduate student of Lady Shri Ram College, Delhi, became the target of online harassment when she was just 12. “A classmate from my previous school had been collecting my photos and information about me and had used this to forge a Facebook page in my name,” Singh told IndiaSpend. “I had no idea and found out about this fake page through my peers.”

What initially seemed like harmless teasing soon turned vicious. Schoolmates took to sending crude messages, and, unable to cope, Singh started avoiding her friends. She finally sought counselling to deal with depression and switched schools.

“The mental, psychological, and emotional breakdown of victims of bullying has long been documented--cyber bullying only continues in that tradition,” pointed out Shah, who was co-founder and director of research at the non-profit policy think-tank Centre for Internet and Society, which is based in Bengaluru.

“There are quite a few studies which have reported that bullying is often considered a way to stay in power,” said Soha Moitra, regional director of CRY. “Some people also may want to gain popularity or feel powerful by hurting or abusing others.” Personal grudges are a big reason for online bullying, said Karnika Seth, a cyber law expert who has been training law enforcement teams in India for two decades.

Like Singh, three in four adolescent users are not aware of--or do not adhere to--the minimum age for creating a social media account, which is 13 for Facebook and 18 for other networking sites, the CRY survey found. Having grown up around gadgets, 80% of the boys and 59% of the girls interviewed by CRY had social media accounts; 31% had more than two accounts.

“The internet does allow for a vast unprecedented connection with strangers, but this is not any different from people who travel, work, and find new communities in the physical world,” said Shah. Online misbehaviour is rooted in the lack of “social governance and political processes to shape and train people into recognising each other as human”, he said, adding that cyberbullying is sometimes a coping mechanism for maladjusted individuals, who exploit its anonymous or distantly mediated interactions.

Reporting online harassment

Ankita*, 19, a resident of Ashok Vihar in north-west Delhi, had been trolled violently five years ago for a Facebook post critical of the government. But she did not report the harassment, she said because she had no idea how to.

“One of the biggest problems in reporting cyber bullying is that a large number of vulnerable victims don't even recognise that what is happening to them is bullying,” said Shah. As in other studies of abuse, it has been shown that bullying has been structurally normalised within the digital space, and so often the victims do not even know that the harassment and bullying that they are facing is not natural or normal, and hence they lose their agency to actually report and use the grievance mechanisms and affordances to find respite.

There are other reasons why cyberbullying is rarely reported. Those abused may be unaware of legal options, fear retaliation or worry about being stuck with defamation charges, said Seth. “They doubt the legal framework and [are unsure if there are] trained officers to investigate these crimes,” she said.

Only 35% of the respondents to the CRY study knew of the internet safety guide published by the National Council of Education Research and Training that offers tools and tips for internet use.

“The police need to register an FIR when a cognisable offence is reported,” said Seth. “There have been instances when the police didn’t register the case. In that case, the victim can file a section 156(3) case seeking court direction to register.”

What can be done

The CRY study suggested a campaign to create awareness about cyberbullying among children and adolescents. Conducting focused training programmes for teachers, and sessions with students on internet safety and guidelines that are included in the school curriculum could be effective, CRY said. Existing cyber laws should be revised for child safety issues, and portals, where cyber-crime can be reported, should be set up.

There are three things that scholars and activists in the field have always advocated, Shah said--one, believe the survivors; two, create safe spaces; and three, create public literacy.

Both the victim and the accused need to be counselled, said Yatan Balhara, a psychiatrist with the Delhi-based All India Institute of Medical Sciences. The abuser may well have a history of being bullied, he added.

(*Names have been changed to protect identities)

(Rhea Maheshwari, a postgraduate student of public policy at St Xavier’s College, Mumbai, is an intern with IndiaSpend.)

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