The risk posed by social media


Social media is widely used by predators and paedophiles who target young, innocent children. Parents and pre-primary educational centres should be careful about the information they share on social networking sites. There is a pressing need to address the situation and ensure children are safe in the confines of their homes and schools, says Mamta Gupta.

Social media is the new ‘evil’. Despite its many benefits and advantages, the perils and risks of social media keep drawing attention. Social media is everywhere and used by almost everyone capable of using a smartphone. And that includes predators and paedophiles who target young, innocent children.

All over the world, governments and education institutions are grappling with the problems that arise with the ‘abuse’ of social media. In most nations around the world, the governments are drafting policies to regulate social media as it is widely used to cause unrest, trigger anti-national activities and riots and spread fake news. Similarly, educational institutions such as schools and colleges are finding it difficult to prevent the misuse of social media that directly puts their students at risk.

In India, the government is twiddling its thumb over a comprehensive and encompassing policy to ensure the safety and security of school children. In the absence of a clear-cut regulation or legislation regarding the use, misuse of social media and ensuing penalties and remedies, each school is left to frame rules and regulations for their own students. In fact, schools are devising ways to incorporate social media and new-age technology with the existing teaching styles to upgrade teaching standards and learning outcomes. So, to strike a balance and ensure social media is ‘used’, not ‘misused’ is a difficult task and almost impossible to achieve.

The internet is flooded with social networking sites – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, LinkedIn, Youtube, TikTok being some of the most popular ones. For older children, the risks mostly originate directly from their own activities by being active on social media. The fact that social media has become too pervasive and intrusive also means that the risks are also very high.

Both children and parents must be aware of the perils of social networking sites. Predators are always on the look for vulnerable and unaware children who are easy prey.
Once the risks are identified and understood, actions and strategies can be implemented to minimise the danger and the threat to children on social media.

For children in the pre-primary age group, the risks of social media arise mainly from the activities of their parents, relatives, teachers and other users of social networking sites and not the children themselves.

Young and vulnerable

The fact that they are too young to use networking sites or apps means that they will not be active themselves but it also means they won’t have a say in someone clicking their pictures or videos and uploading on social media without their consent or that of their parents or guardians. Not to mention that pre-primary age group children are now getting access to smartphones and social media, albeit through the profiles of their parents or family members, as parents often hand over their phones to keep their children engaged.

The law on protection of privacy of children in terms of posting content on social media is weak. Unless a parent or guardian explicitly denies permission and raises objection to such content of their child or ward put on social media, there is nothing in law that prevents such activity by itself.
That is the reason why online predators who eye unassuming parents posting ‘happy’ pictures and those of their family and children on social media find it very easy to find their targets online.

People in general are sharing too much information today on social networking sites which is clearly avoidable and not advisable. Parents put all kinds of ‘dangerous’ details on their social media platforms – the school their child is attending, places they visit, vacation itineraries, events the child or family is going to participate in, travel plans, family details and pictures, etc.

All this information that an unsuspecting parent divulges is the perfect fodder for an online predator. These predators are always fishing for such information, images and videos. And they can do a lot more with that information that one can imagine. The predator can be present at the specific event, can walk up to the child’s school and befriend the child using other details of family members and their lives, posted online.

There is nothing people don’t talk about on social media – their birthday, name of spouse, parents’ name, hometown, pet’s name and details, their favourites, etc. All this information can also be used by cyber predators to get access to platforms that house sensitive information such as a child’s school records, medical records, private images and videos and portals that can be used for identity theft also.

One must understand that smaller, innocuous details shared over a long period of time can be used by online stalkers and predators to draw a big picture and infer information that you have not even posted online. In case of adults, such details are often used for hacking as they reveal answers to secret questions, email passwords, etc.

Additionally, not just actively putting live content, pictures and images but also commenting on other people’s (friend’s) posts reveal a lot of information and can easily be misused.

Social media reveal much

Most social networking sites and apps offer privacy options that seem to protect the data you put online making it available only to those you wish to. However, the fact remains there is nothing like privacy in cyber space. Most content that you post online gets crawled through search engines and hundreds of other sites that keep this information in their databases.

So, if you have made a public picture on your social media account private, there is no guarantee that the image wouldn’t have been taken up by other sites. Also, these platforms keep changing their privacy policy, making it difficult for the user to understand or keep pace with. A lot of information despite being marked private is revealed to ‘mutual’ friends, followers, etc.

Online stalkers and predators act in different ways. While they may not have access to children of this age group directly on social media, they may approach children physically based on the details divulged online by their parents or other family members.

The threat is not restricted to activities by parents or family members. Children are at risk from their schools (playschools, nurseries), day care centres, tuition teachers and instructors of other hobby classes that they go to.

Pre-school activity raises risks

When day care centres, nurseries, playschools, tutors, hobby class instructors post pictures of children on social media, they put these children at high risk. Such content may be uploaded for various reasons – to promote their respective entity, to publicise about events, activities, award functions, outdoor visits, etc. or generally on their social media platforms for public viewing. In most cases, parental consent is not acquired, the content is ‘public’ and ‘innocuous’ use of such images and videos jeopardises the child involved.

Often, such predators cultivate relationships with such children and create a trusting bond, so the child does not raise alarm or inform anyone. Then, with the right opportunity, such predators start abusing children in different ways. It is important for parents to develop a close bond with their children, so the child trusts them completely. Parents should also be aware all the time about their child’s behaviour and any change, if so. The child must know and understand that it is not okay to have any interaction with strangers and any such instance must be reported to the parent.

The benefits of social media are often argued for – staying in touch with family, friends; getting to know new people; interacting with people with similar interests and hobbies; professional networking; etc. But the dangers are far more serious and cannot be ignored. It is the responsibility of every parent to protect their child.

Mamta Gupta

Mamta Gupta is a Research Associate with Maverick – A DraftCraft International initiative to further reach, accountability and the law in Pre-Primary, Primary, Intermediary and Secondary Education.