I’m certain that nobody in my school has ever spoken about this, and I don’t believe they ever will. The things I am about to mention have been so normalized, that we’ve brushed them off and (unfortunately and unintentionally) let them continue.
When I joined my second boarding school in 2008, I was 13 years old, which made me eligible for a Facebook account. Almost all of us in school were fascinated by the social network and couldn’t wait to have access to the internet to update our statuses (we weren’t allowed to possess cell phones, we used a coin box to call our parents.) On Facebook, we posted pictures of ourselves, our thoughts, our milestones, played weird games and were ecstatic to explore this new medium after having suffered from the disease called Orkut (#NoRegrets).
Curiosity and experimentation of what good Facebook could do were also followed by experimentation of what harm could be caused by it. When I was 15, a boy in the same grade as ours made fake Facebook accounts of at least three girls in the grade, including me. He used our pictures, sent friend requests to our friends and began posting flattering and racy compliments on his own pictures from these fake accounts. When we did find out who he was (cue – the compliments), he deleted the profiles. During this time, I remember seeing at least five or six other girls posting statuses about their fake accounts; it seemed to be an epidemic.
Another incident, which to me seemed like something punishable with jail time, was when someone made a fake Facebook profile of a senior girl I was friends with. She was one of the sweetest people I knew, but due to a “bad reputation” because of having an active dating life in school, someone decided to make her the target of an outrageous, abusive activity. I was already upset and was feeling violated with the incident of my fake profile being made, but when I saw hers. I was horrified. It was bombarded with pictures of penises and links to porn videos from different sites. At that age, I just could not comprehend that a person could have so much hatred and disregard for consequences to be able to do this to someone else.
Apart from harassment on social media, messages from strange guys landed up in our inbox more and more often. Once, upon turning down a boy when he asked me out in grade 10, I received sexist and degrading messages from him (one of the messages was also racist.)
It’s not just the boys, mind you. Real life fights translated into online feuds more times than I can count. I remember a former friend posting a very nasty status update about me on her Facebook profile once. To her, I say, that was abuse. Hope you’ve sought some help.
If you think that that’s where this ended, you’re obviously wrong.
When I left school after grade 10, someone with obvious ill intentions circulated my phone number among the creeps near my school. So even after I was away from school, trying to start a new life, I kept receiving messages from strange guys on a daily basis. Most, if not all of these guys, were absolutely shameless. Threats to lodge a complaint with the police went almost unnoticed and were sometimes mocked. One of the guys, when threatened with a police complaint, went as far as to give me his name and home address, which was in the same city I was in.
The blatant sexism and double standards, just like every other part of India, were a norm for the students of my school. Girls who engaged in healthy flirting were labelled as ‘sluts’ without any hesitation, while boys with the same tendency were referred to as ‘studs’ or ‘playboys’. This obviously spilled over into, and soon consumed the online behaviour of whoever came into contact with social media. We weren’t an exception. Sleazy messages and comments, making fake profiles were all just means of harassment, either due to a rivalry, a means of entertainment or just plain sadism.
Even back then, eight years ago, it was normal for boys in school to harass girls and flash them with unwanted dicks online. It was okay for girls to abuse each other online.
This is not a problem of the current generation or of the fact that the internet exists. It is a problem of the deep-seated power dynamics which have been passed down from generation to generation.
Where did these boys get the audacity to harass a girl in this manner, without fear of consequences or repercussions? The boy who made the fake accounts of three girls was almost invisible in the classroom, we knew his name but never knew anything else. Why did he think it was okay to do what he did? Was he seeking attention by harassing girls? Was the friend who posted a nasty status about me to afraid to face me and have a sane conversation? These questions were never asked, so we’ll never know the answers to them.
Since I was in a boarding school and all of us we were away from our parents, the only people we could report this to were the teachers, but we didn’t, for a variety of reasons. When even contact with the opposite sex was looked down upon by authorities, how do you explain online sexual abuse to them without embarrassing yourself? Schools need to focus less on gaining control over student’s hormones and moral policing and focus more on their actual safety.
Even if we managed to complain, what was the result? Detention? A scolding? Suspension? All of these, if not some, could possibly lead to an even worse incident, or at least that’s what we feared.
Online abuse against children is something nobody speaks about, sometimes even within a family. It is not considered as grave a crime (yes, it is a crime) as physical abuse and mostly goes ignored and unresolved. That’s what makes it even more dangerous. It is not limited by location, gender or age – it just requires internet access and a bad intention. Firstly, understand this – whether you acknowledge it or not – it is happening.
Almost all children in urban schools have access to social media these days. If an incident of cyberbullying or harassment occurs, one may delete the child’s account, one may take away their phone or revoke their access to the internet. What people do not realize that children have friends and their friends have internet. In short, one cannot control or monitor all of a child’s online activities.
Schools, teachers, and parents need to acknowledge that education about the internet and it’s usage is just as important as education about irrelevant things like algebra (sorry, not sorry). The only way you can start the journey to assure a child’s safety on the internet is by having a frank conversation with them. Schools need to allocate specific lectures (they love lectures) to inform children about safety online and the repercussions of harassing someone online. Parents need to take these complaints more seriously, it’s not just “kids being kids”, it is cybercrime.
Online sexual abuse or online harassment is a violation of the rights of a child and is not something that should be looked at a harmless, one-time slip-up.
As for teaching children about respecting women or human beings in general, children become what they learn from their surroundings, they learn by example.
I am astonished as to why it took me seven years to finally acknowledge that I, too, have brushed things under the carpet and pretended like they never happened, but they did. They happened then, they are happening now, and it is an issue that’s important enough to pay attention to and to ask ourselves, “What rock are we living under?” and “How can we come out from under the rock and make things better for children?”