The years 2020-21 have been extremely challenging for all of us. Each and every aspect of our lives which we considered to be ‘Just a regular thing’ was disrupted and taken away from us. This included the disruption of the lives of young adolescents as well. They were not allowed to meet their friends, go out to play, attend school and essentially not allowed to go about their lives at all. Besides the physical challenges that minors around the faced due to these lockdowns, such as being more vulnerable to malnutrition, poverty, abusive households, missing out on education etc, there were severe mental health and psychological issues as well, which could potentially affect them in long term.

A policy brief of UN in April 2020, did highlight that Children do face high levels of anxiety about the negative impact of the Pandemic on their and their family’s lives and uncertainty of the future. This could induce great amounts of stress affecting their cognitive thing and having severe long term effects. Another study of August 2020, published by the PMC, highlighted that prolonged containment measures expose them to having debilitating effects on educational, psychological, and developmental attainment as they experience loneliness, anxiety, and uncertainty. This coupled with the increased use of the Internet and its services like social media and gaming offer a great escape and way to cope up with the uncertainty. This is directly linked to the 87% increase in the use of Social media platforms as the lockdowns were introduced in India. Even the popular digital game distributor, Steam, reported a significant increase in the number of users gaming during the lockdowns. UNICEF, also reported in one of their articles that Social media and Online Gaming offer escape and offer valuable social engagement.

However, the excessive use of these platforms, as stated above, gives rise to another issue besides the severe long term effects such as bullying and abuse, and that is being influenced by the community you connect with, online.

Recently, a 13 Year old from Maharashtra, was reported to have run away from his Household after making a comprehensive plan with the community he was engaged in on the popular Social Media and Communications platform, Discord. The community or the chat room made extensive plans and provided advice relating to running away from home, such as the best time to leave home, amount of money to carry, destination, where to stay, how to avoid kidnapping and how to stay low key. While the kid was eventually found by the police at a hotel in Calangute, the incident point out a much greater issue. The news article of this incident also reported that Discord had over 18 such servers or chat rooms, and there were 8000 members on Reddit of the community named ‘Runaway’ where similar advice was shared to the questions, potentially asked by minors.

Teenagers are usually of the age which inherently brings in enthusiasm and risk-taking. When we combine these attributes with increased anxiety levels and stress and uncertainty due to the lockdowns and possibly losing their parents due to COVID-19, taking a drastic measure from the advice one gets through their online community and ‘escape’ i.e. the Social media( in this case Discord or Reddit) doesn’t seem very unlikely.

One cannot look at the activities on these online Platforms in isolation, it points out a much greater problem that has even severe consequences. These communities could be playing ground for Human Traffickers or Criminals who groom kids for meeting them and engaging in paedophilia or trafficking. They could easily give out the information and location of minors who can be manipulated into doing something really dangerous. Moreover, this is not an issue that just has a possibility of translating into real life but rather has translated to real lives for people around us. As per a news report August published in Indian Express, a 15-year school girl, whose school had been shut for over a month due to covid, was living in a household that was facing difficulty to make the ends meet as her father had lost her job due to the lockdown. She eventually fell for a proposal of marriage with a 24-Year-old man who made her the promises of a better life and exploited her vulnerabilities. While she was eventually saved by the Village Child Protection Committee, the news does paint a picture of how the situation can become worse and have real-world consequences if this vulnerable section of our society falls prey to the Criminals waiting to jump on their Vulnerabilities.

What can parents and teachers do?

As the world has gradually started to open up, what the parents and teachers can do is to motivate these young people to go to school, interact with people and help them live their lives beyond the screens, while also having a conversation with them about realities of Digital world, how cyber crimes can affect them and what could be the real-world consequences of such crimes. Teachers and Schools can follow the guidelines released by the National and International institutions concerning mental health wellbeing and treatments. They can institute such policies and employ mental health professionals in school and create a safe space for the young minds to process their emotions like stress, anxiety or even grief and make sure they are validated and they don’t resort to social media for validation and to be heard.

Author – Mr. Hrishikesh Bedi, Consultant, CyberPeace Foundation

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