Centre for Internet & Society

In one photo, Prerna stands in front of the mirror, back slightly arched, a fringe covering her left eye, one hand on her hip, pursing her lips. The other hand holds the camera in a steadfast grip. Below this picture are almost a hundred likes and comments. There is nothing unusual as such about this photo on Facebook. Prerna, however, is just 11.

This article by Shikha Kumar was published in Daily News & Analysis on July 8, 2012. Sunil Abraham is quoted.

"Stop looking so pretty" and "OMG! You’re so thin" are some of the comments that appear under the picture of this young girl.

In another picture, Diksha’s wavy hair cascades around her face as she fixes the camera with an unwavering stare. The caption reads — "I love my hair. I know I sound like a conceited bitch." Diksha is 12.

Children like Prerna and Diksha, who are under the age of 13, are officially not allowed to open accounts on Facebook. But they are among the 7.5 million under-13 users of the popular social networking website, according to a study released by Consumer Reports last year. The study further revealed that among such users, 5 million were under the age of 10. Closer home, a McAfee-Synovate survey conducted across various cities in India revealed that 64% kids in the age group of 9-12 are members of social networking sites.

You may find the trend daunting since ‘kids’ are supposed to step out and socialise, rather than chat online. However, it’s a reality that we have no choice but to accept as a modern reality.

Internally, Facebook seems to have accepted the trend. As revealed by a news reports last month, the company is readying a technology that will allow children younger than 13 to open accounts and operate them in a secure manner. Possible approaches include connecting the children’s Facebook accounts with their parents’, and giving parents the control over who befriends their children on the website.

The New ways of being in touch with ‘friends’
The move has once again put the spotlight on the ways in which social networking is changing the way children interact with each other.

Namrata Bhoomkar, 13, logs on to the website at least two to three times a day. "I check my news feeds and see what my friends are up to. If you’re not on Facebook, you can’t be updated with what’s happening with everybody," she says.

Apart from finding out what their friends are up to, kids also spend a lot of time sharing their pictures, and are proficient at photo editing software like Photoshop, Picasa and Photobooth to make their pictures more striking.

Another way of standing out is to give pictures creative captions. "I google random quotes on love and life and then put those up as captions on the pictures. I get a lot of likes for it, which makes me feel nice," says 13-year old Sakshi Shrivastav.

Having No clue about privacy settings
However, while the kids use many of Facebook’s features, few are aware of the risks or the privacy settings available on the website that can protect them. In the McAfee-Synovate survey, 32% of the kids were not aware of any online threats, such as cyber hacking, stalking, bullying and identity thefts.

As a result, lessons are often learnt the hard way. "A 39-year-old man started sending me messages saying that I’m very pretty. My father found out and told me to disable my account. I was very upset since all my friends are on Facebook. So finally, my sister helped me activate my privacy settings," says an underage girl on the condition of anonymity.

Anandita Mishra, a security expert at McAfee Cybermum India, says that she does not advocate kids’ presence on Facebook. "There are several dangers; there might be paedophiles lurking, strangers pretending to be younger or your child may be a victim of online abusing or bullying," she says.

With the new timeline format, even though one’s account is protected, the cover pictures are always visible to everybody. In such cases, Mishra recommends either keeping no cover photo or keeping pictures of favourite cartoon characters.

In the face of so many risks, some experts believe that Facebook’s move to officially allow younger kids under some form of parental supervision is a step in the right direction.

"Children’s interaction online should always be under parental supervision. Censorship and control is not the responsibility of the government, but of parents," points out Sunil Abraham, director, Centre for Internet and Society.

Abraham believes that if this technology comes into force, children will consume content more responsibly. This will also give them the chance to go out in the real world and get some real communication experience, the old-fashioned way.

"They will even behave responsibly. If the account is supervised, they are less likely to engage in bullying, abusing, sexting or any other unacceptable forms of social behaviour," he adds.

While she is not totally in favour of this development, McAfee’s Mishra sees no other way because parents are unable to control their children. "Seven million kids are online with or without parental supervision. You cannot have cyber policing of children. It is important to inculcate the right values about responsible internet usage," she says.

Filed under: