Almost every parent has asked this question at least once—how do you protect your children from the dark side of the internet?
A 2016 Dhaka-based survey, conducted by Manusher Jonno Foundation reveals that 77 percent of 500 boys from grade eight to 12 surveyed, watch porn through their mobile phones, laptops, tablets, websites, and/or CDs. They also reveal that in most cases, the characters shown in those pornographic videos are below 18 years of age.
This should not come as a surprise to anyone—adolescent children through the ages have always found avenues to explore their sexuality, which in itself is a part of development.
“However, since sex education is still a taboo in our society, children are getting their information from the internet,” says Abdulla Al Mamun, child rights specialist and programme coordinator of Manusher Jonno Foundation.
“Adolescents might learn about their sexuality around the age of 10-12 and it helps them learn about a healthy reproductive life in the long run. But, when they get their sex education from pornography, they do not develop sound knowledge on a healthy sexual relationship—many things in porn are exaggerated. As such, when they try to relate it with their real-life experience, the discrepancy affects them when they reach their teenage years, followed by adulthood,” says Mamun.
Mainstream porn shows that men are entitled to their needs, and this is an idea that boys, already growing up in a patriarchal society, easily relate to and reproduce in their own relationships as they grow up.
The browsing experience is such that even innocent searches by children, who are not old enough to know that the words they are typing into the search fields may have double meanings, may return age-inappropriate results. Most parents do not use applications that make their browsers safe for children, who are consequently exposed to adult content that they did not even want in the first place.
For instance, to the question 'How babies are made?' our answer will vary depending on whether the child is five years old or 12 years old. However, when five-year-old Google the question, they may receive unfiltered information about the human reproductive system that may be difficult for them to process, and may end up traumatising them.
Adolescents are also more likely to engage in unsafe 'sexting' (sending sexually explicit photographs or messages via mobile phones), putting themselves at risk of cyber-bullying. Sometimes the recipients are strangers that the children or adolescents encounter through the virtual world.
According to Md Alimuzzaman, deputy commissioner of Social Media Monitoring and Cyber Security division of the DMP, they have received 566 such complaints and 100 cases, now under investigation, in 2017 alone. Of the total victims, 70 percent are women aged between 18 and 25. Shockingly, 53 of the victims were below 18 years of age.
The actual number is much higher than the reported incidents, as most of the child victims don't go to the police since they don't know how to deal with cyber harassment. Many fear the reaction of their parents or peers, so they try to keep silent. On the other hand, a large group of children don't even understand whether what is happening to them is actually harassment.
“Most of the complaints are related to the hacking of social media accounts and creation of fake accounts using obscene and inappropriate images. We have assessed that many school-goers consider hacking their friend's Facebook account as a challenge. They spend more time online than the average adult to learn hacking by using different open-source information,” says Alimuzzaman.
Parents should also be more cognizant of what games children are playing online. Although there are many educational games available on the internet, children are more likely to be interested in aggressive or violent games. In Bangladesh, a large number of players of first-person shooter games are children between 12 to 15 years, although these games are not suitable for those under 17.
According to Dr Helal Uddin Ahmed, associate professor, Child Adolescent and Family Psychiatry, National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), when children become addicted to any website or online game, such content (containing aggression, violence or adult material) can bring a huge change to their psychology and can easily affect their conduct. “Violent video games can make them aggressive. Frustration and depression soon follow,” he says.
That our children are being exposed to and affected by these hyper-masculine, violent avenues can be seen from the gang activity of grade schoolers in different small areas of Dhaka. Take the example of the murder of Adnan Kabir, the eighth grader from Trust School and College, Uttara. Adnan was a member of the local 'Nine Star Group' (9MM Boys) on Facebook and he was stabbed by the local 'Disco Boys' group because of a rivalry among those two groups. Before going to kill Adnan, the Disco Boys posted a picture on their Facebook group, with weapons in their hands. Also, just a few hours after Adnan was murdered, one of his group members posted on their group page: “Bro, we will find out your killers and slaughter them!”
The internet was designed for adults, but the demographic soon expanded as children started going online. We should therefore be more conscious about their activities so that children access only suitable content in the virtual world. According to Emon Kumar Dey, assistant professor, Institute of Information Technology (IIT), University of Dhaka, parents should maintain maximum security on their devices and use safe browsing related software for children. “Parents and teachers can play a very important role here. They should educate children about how they can use the internet for positive purposes. They can openly talk about which websites are good or which are harmful,” he says.
Dr Ahmed also agrees that children must use the internet, but in a limited, supervised and responsible way. Parents should be very careful about what their children are browsing online. They should educate themselves too and develop at least a functional idea of dangers in the virtual world.
The internet is certainly a mandatory tool for our children to widen their horizons, but it is up to us, now more so than ever, to ensure that they are doing that in a positive way.