Trigger Warning: Sexual Harassment
Due to the raging pandemic, the lockdown that was imposed globally compelled students to shift to digital spaces to continue their education. A mobile phone with an internet connection is an ocean of exploration opportunities. In India, parents were restrictive of their children’s free access to mobiles from a very young age but now, the situation compelled them to act otherwise.
Digital literacy wasn’t a necessary conversation until more and more people had to start using digital media. There is, however, no major parental lock system on social media, and with today’s smart and advanced generation, it is even more difficult to restrict them from selective digital spaces such as Instagram and Facebook.
Young individuals aged between 10-15 are impressionable and vulnerable in terms of forming their unique personalities. With free access to social media, they heavily consume content that isn’t completely unfiltered and true — like celebrity styling, photoshoots and other major media representations. Young girls and boys try imitating such content and not having enough wisdom, fall prey to an unforgiving sexual gaze.
The onus is not on them to ‘protect’ themselves, but perpetrators must be held accountable. Under the Information Technology Act, (IT 2000), online harassment is used as an umbrella term to describe the use of the internet to harass, threaten or maliciously embarrass another party. It can be in the form of verbal, sexual, emotional or social abuse and aimed at a person, a group of persons or even an organisation.
Children who receive lewd comments from older people on social media should be encouraged to call them out. This should fall under digital literacy and must be propagated institutionally to children, especially girls who survive such situations.
In a recent incident at Christ University, a student shared her account of how a proctored examination invigilator sent her messages that were uncomfortable, unprofessional and of harassment through digital media. The student had requested additional time for her paper submission to which the proctor responded, “Another 3 mins, baby.”
Her account soon gained momentum as more students started opening up about how their cameras were asked to be lowered to ensure no one was availing to malpractices, but students felt they were being subjected to voyeuristic pleasure.
A complaint was filed against the proctor in question but the University, with a poor grievance redressal space, dismissed their claims on the vague lines of justifying his ‘intention’ to be ‘caring’ and ‘kind’. This lack of acknowledgement and student-friendly spaces in campuses are complicit in creating these unfortunate situations.
Christ University, which has a disappointing history of sexism and harassment on campus, must proactively advocate for students’ safety and well-being, both on-campus and digitally. “We did not want proctored examinations in the first place and after 3 weeks of constant dialogue, our HOD was successful in moving the Centre of Examination to comply to our cause. We took a submission-based test,” said a Semester 3 student of Masters in English, Christ University (a friend shared her personal experience under the pretext of maintaining anonymity).
The media is also responsible for enabling such propositions with tabloid and paparazzi culture. Celebrity children are given extreme media attention, exposing them to criticism about their body, appearance and fashion sense — things that should not be of national concern. ‘Star kids’ face a violation of their privacy and experience, something that no child should go through. There is a constant gaze of a heterogeneous mass that, of course, includes unsolicited sexual gazes of older individuals.
Recently, 17-year-old British actress Milly Bobby Brown made a public statement regarding ‘Media Sexualisation’ and began a very important conversation that addresses the need to sensitise social media from paedophilic or hebephiliac gazes.
The Indian Penal Code has some provisions to protect against cyber-harassment and young children must be intimated with the same. Here are some laws that youngsters should be made aware of to maintain digital safety.
Sending obscene material (photos, pictures, films, messages) to a woman through social media is an act of sexual harassment under the IPC. Showing or sending a woman pornographic or sexually explicit material without her consent is a form of sexual harassment under Section 354A of the IPC. The perpetrator of such a crime can be punished with three years of imprisonment or a fine or both.
The IT Act, as amended in 2008, does not explicitly provide any provisions against online stalking.
In most cases of online stalking, Section 72 (penalty for breach of confidentiality or privacy) of the IT Act is employed. If a person, without the other person’s consent, discloses information about them online in any form of media, they are liable to be punished for a period of up to two years or fine of one lakh rupees, or both.
Having mentioned that, we must open conversations to address digital safety. The prevailing laws of the land need immediate reformations to tackle the rising cases of digital harassment. Now that students are using digital spaces more than ever, cybersecurity must be updated and institutions must take relevant actions to intimate and update the students.
Having more effective and functioning grievance redressal cells of cyber police and social media platforms can also help in combating this digital peril. Blocking a particular account is a momentary solution as that very account can further harass other individuals. Parents and guardians should also be open to discussion with their children regarding cybersecurity.
The digital mode of communication is here to stay and it is time we take action against harassment and call out perpetrators to send out a stern message against cyber harassment that violaters feel is a haven given its ambiguity.