There was a time when children devoured comics of super heroes, who vanquished the bad and innocent teenage love in the Archies series.
The onslaught of technology and the internet has given tech-savvy kids access to a sea of restricted content. Violent, erotically-charged role-playing games and pornography sites inundate youngsters with adult ideas and desires they don’t understand. Indian society’s tendency to brush subjects like sex under the carpet leave these kids with nobody to turn to but their peers, with dangerous consequences, as the 13-year-old boy accused of rape proves. Bans or confiscating gadgets, two popular forms of admonition, elicit open rebellion. While information can’t be restricted, parents and schools must teach children how to discern the good from the bad, reports Ranjani Madhavan
There was a time when children devoured comics of super heroes, who vanquished the bad and innocent teenage love in the Archies series. Cut to the present and you see the likes of Gotham and Riverdale- the adult versions of the old tales, robbed of all innocence- invading your homes via television. If you are lucky your children may not see them. But chances are they could given that most couples work today and monitoring children is not all that easy anymore.
For some parents the consequences of the easy access that children have to gadgets, violent video games and porn on the Net can be more serious than imagined. Only recently a 14 –year- old boy raped a three- year -old girl in his home in the city and when asked why, said he spoke about sex and porn with his friends and wanted to experience what he had learnt from them in school. To him the act clearly did not seem a crime, but merely an experience. And neither did he seem to know the difference between sex and rape, indicating that his parents and teachers had not bothered to educate him about these sensitive subjects.
Agreeing that a child must be made aware of such issues at every stage of development, depending on how much he or she can understand, Ms Shuchitha , a parent says, " Though my two- year -old is too small to understand, we educate our nine- year- old every few days on good and bad touch as we read and hear so much about child abuse. In fact, there’s so much fear today that if parents do not feel comfortable about their child's friend, they will not send him to even his birthday party as they are never sure what could happen."
While parents can step in such ways, they have a harder time monitoring the information that is readily available today on the Net and which their children can absorb without a filter. Violent video games and pornographic websites that often misrepresent reality and portray violence as pleasure and blur the lines of consent, are a nightmare for most with teenage children.
" There are many games on my phone, which have zero educational content and are only meant for entertainment. But we can't say no and keep gadgets out of bounds as it makes children only more curious and demanding. So we have limited gaming time to two hours a week as an alternative," says Ms Shuchitha.
The children’s vulnerability to the influence of media, the Net and peer pressure only grows with both parents and schools still shying away from sex education. Trying to bridge the gap is Ms Nooraine Fazal, CEO and Managing Trustee of Inventure Academy. "We don't know what kind of conversations parents have with their children as they themselves may have been brought up in an environment where such topics are a taboo. So we host workshops held by experts, who teach parents how to handle questions from children," she reveals.
The workshops offer life skills programmes and discuss cyber policy, code of conduct, culture, sensitivity, respecting others, right to a safe school, and keeping oneself and one's community safe, among other topics.
The school also has counsellors for all grade levels, catering to primary, secondary and high school students. "Teachers play an important role by looking out for students who are off track, for example, checking for students who do not eat their lunch, do not interact with friends, become withdrawn and so on," Ms Fazal explains.
Schools should provide sex-ed, counsellors
A study by Child Rights Trust (CRT), disturbingly, shows that 90 per cent of youngsters in Bengaluru start watching porn early on and continue doing so when they enter Pre-University.
"Porn, including child porn, is easily available. It is addictive and makes the child want to experiment with what they see. Kids are innocent and curious. This study show that watching too much porn makes them loose memory power, communication skills, and gives rise to feelings of guilt and low self esteem among them," says Mr Nagasimha Rao, director of CRT.
Besides having problems as individuals, he believes these children could grow up to become sexual abusers, rapists and social outcasts. " Once they are caught committing a sexual offence, even as juveniles, they are scarred for life and rejected by society. And both their lives and those of their victims are affected forever. So it’s not enough to stop at just good touch, bad touch awareness," he stresses.
During its study, CRT came across a case of children watching porn on their mobiles in a classroom and clicking pictures of their teacher by zooming in on her body parts. But Mr Rao doesn’t think taking mobiles away, blocking porn sites and TV channels is the solution as children will always look for alternatives out of curiosity. Punishing them will not help either, in his opinion. "It’s essential rather to talk to them about what are wrong words and actions and teach them about body parts. Schools need to provide sex education and counsellors," he suggests, adding that if children are looking for answers, it is better they get them from credible sources like parents and schools, rather than misleading websites and strangers. "On the one hand we talk about protecting our children and on the other they have free access to porn. Often violence and gruesome audio-visuals give the wrong message about what sex is," he notes.
Pointing out the dangers of social media, he says there have been several cases of strangers posing as friends and engaging with children regularly on Facebook to gain their trust and then meeting them and assaulting them on the pretext of ‘playing a game’. Clearly, the only protection the children can have is awareness and both teachers and parents need to arm them with it in this age of unbridled, and uncensored information that they can access with ease.
Is peer pressure the root of the problem?
- There have many rape cases in which the accused is a minor. Explaining them, behavioural psychologists feel that teenagers are more likely to give in to peer pressure and be influenced by it.
- In one such case, a 14-year-old boy, influenced conversations with friends, raped a three-year-old girl in the city recently to experience it for real.
- And in the 2012 horrifying Nirbhaya rape, one of the accused was a minor, who was sent to a juvenile home by the court. Unlike for majors, a minor accused gets no punishment and easily gets away after serving a few months in a juvenile home.