The lure to join social networking sites coupled with peer pressure compels many children to join them, by lying about their age. Earlier, one had to be 18, but that was reduced to 13 years to be eligible to join Facebook, the most popular social networking site of them all, raising many eyebrows in the process. In its defence, Facebook maintained that it has different privacy settings for minors – Minors can only share content with friends, friends of those friends, and the network (such as the school they attend) whereas adults can share content with all the Facebook users.
But, then again, these are still minors and whether you are a parent or not, you’d still be worried sick about their online safety. Citing these worries and echoing many parents’ concerns, a public interest litigation was filed by KN Govindacharya, a former BJP ideologue and RSS patron in the Delhi High Court, the major focus of which was – how Indian children aged below 18 years are accessing Facebook, even though Indian laws do not permit it.
Additionally, the court had also asked the site to submit suggestions on safety measures for online usage of social networking sites by minors in India. The PIL, filed this April, in addition to throwing light on the state of affairs, also seeks to find answers to this complicated issue.
It has, hopefully, brought in some positive changes in the system –
A bold disclaimer on the home page
In the latest PIL hearing on 16th July, the Delhi High Court asked Facebook to upload a disclaimer on its home page that children below the age of 13 years cannot open an account on it. Although this is clearly stated in the Terms & Conditions, as pointed out by Facebook, the same would now have to be displayed in bold on the home page.
And how much would that act as a deterrent is anybody’s guess. Most children under 13 years are helped by their parents to join the network, hence the disclaimer will serve no useful purpose. My nieces both aged under 13 are on Facebook along with their classmates and teachers as ‘friends’.
Until the time, we find solutions to help verify age on online sites, Facebook or any other social networking site for that matter, cannot do anything fool-proof about disallowing children under 13!
Online protection of minors from social networking abuse
At the hearing, the court also asked the central government what law it had for the online protection of Indian children from being abused through the social networking sites. In one of the earlier hearings, Facebook had stated that it complied with ‘Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act’ (COPPA) as per which a child below 13 is not allowed to open an account, however this is applicable only in the US.
Besides, when a minor joins the network, he/she also agrees to the terms of service of the network, thereby getting into an agreement, which is against the Indian Majority Act, the Indian Contract Act and also the Information and Technology Act.
Questioning the online protection of Indian children, the court has asked the government to inform them on provisions in the law related to a minor using a social networking site. At present, there is no Indian law on the lines of COPPA that protects minors from online abuse.
Educating on online safety for minors
Coinciding with the Tuesday hearing, Facebook also announced its collaboration with Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI) to bring Internet Safety Education programs for students between the age group of 13 to 17. The education programs will train children, teachers, Child safety NGOs and parents on how to reap maximum benefits from internet while not compromising on their safety and security.
In the first phase, the program will be rolled out across Delhi, Mumbai and Hyderabad to cover 18000 students across approximately 30 schools and institutions, and will be extended to other Indian cities through 2014. The program will see Facebook safety specialists work with IAMAI trainers on safety content and participate in the training programs called ‘Safe Surfing’ that IAMAI has been conducting since the past four years.
Where are we headed?
As an aunt to two over-enthusiastic preteens newly discovering Facebook, I’ve always been worried about strangers luring them on the social network, aside from knowing fully well that they are not allowed on the network. But, that also means they are sidelined from classroom chatter, which leaves us with no choice than to allow them with some monitoring and education. This must be the collective worry for a lot of urban Indian parents with Facebooking kids. Hence, education and laws are the need of the hour.
In that respect, Facebook’s collaboration with IAMAI to provide training to all stakeholders is the right move. However, this should have been implemented at the time of reducing the entry age to 13 years on Facebook. Now we need laws in place to protect these minors too.
With cases like the Gurgaon sex and smoke party involving minors gathered through Facebook coming forth, it is no longer a minor issue and needs to be tackled at the earliest. Do share your views in the comments.
Image courtesy: NDTV Gadgets