Nine- year- old Saransh is bending over his keyboard in a small town in Punjab, India, in intense concentration, fixing drinks in his café on Facebook. His aim is to win some Café cash by meeting holiday dinner goals. To help him around he has uncle Gurpreet, who migrated to London 10 years back, much before Saransh was born. Both of them are free in the afternoons – soon after Saransh gets back from school – and the two have bonded over Facebook despite having met each other just twice in all these years.
If the western world has been aghast about Indian kids on Facebook and has been wondering why “irresponsible” parents are not waking up to the threat it poses to them, well, here is an answer. A lot of Indian parents allow children to be on Facebook, often helping them fake ages (outrageous as it sounds) because it helps keep the grand old Indian family together.
Not only are the under 13s flooding the home page with their snazzy Night Club city photos, adopting lost seals in Zoo World and breeding sheep and llamas in Farmville, they are also keeping in touch with working parents, cousins, uncles, aunts, grand dads and grand moms who have migrated across the world. Besides this, they are also getting a slice of Indian mythology that has traditionally been passed down generations as bedtime stories told by grandmothers but is now available as games where Ram the king of Ayodhya battles the evil king Raavan of Lanka to get his abducted wife Sita back. The story talks about the victory of good over evil, which the US has been touting only now.
So, not only is Facebook helping Saransh’s parent take him wherever they go (another controversial Indian practice) but it is ensuring that he stays in touch with India’s rich mythology and his bonding grows with his uncles, aunts and cousins who are now in places like Malaysia, US, Japan and UK. The debate is whether they are also leaving him open to stalkers on the net, and a thousand other dangers. Since he uses the net only at home and when one of them is around, they don’t think so.
Facebook, which has over 500 million users, screens applicants by asking for their birth date and rejects those too young (under 13). However, a pre-teenager can join the network by falsifying his or her birth date. Further, since joining Facebook does not require a credit card, it is easier to give incorrect information to join the network. The figures say that out of Facebook’s 7.5 million underage users (under 13s) more than five million are 10 years and younger and there are concerns over risks online for such young people.
Tokyo-based Mahendra Negi, who works in the internet security industry, feels there are two main reasons why Western parents are more sensitive about security of their children –“ a) Their sensitivity to inappropriate behavior on the net is higher than Indian parents (who are either ignorant about what might be happening on the internet, or desensitized), and b) They have more time on their hands to worry about such issues (the Indian parent is more occupied about making sure that the child is on his way to IAS / Engineering etc). And, of course, on top of that there is the tiger mom behavior (which – even if it does not work – provides some “comfort”).”
Tiger mom or dad (yes, those exist too) behavior includes Indian parents knowing passwords to their kids’ accounts and also being their Facebook friends. They are often operating kids’ accounts from their own e mail IDS and also keeping a stealth check on what exactly the little ones are spending internet time on.They feel that is the children don’t have a Facebook account (that is being monitored by mom or dad) to tempt them, they could be browsing just about anywhere on the net and it become much more difficult to track them. The West might click its tongue over this Indian disregard for children’s privacy but a majority of Asian parents don’t believe too much of it is good for under 13s. So they guiltlessly hack their children’s accounts, change their privacy settings, remove their profile pictures, monitor friendships, check their messages, remove pages they don’t want them to “like” and remove those of their friends that they don’t approve of.
According to Negi, if you ask him which method works better, he would say both of them do not work. “Children these days are smart enough to get around these controls, and the only way to make sure that they do not go down the wrong path is to make an effort to teach them basic human values (and then let them decide what is right and what is wrong – and if they are not of an age where they can do that, then they should not be on Facebook. There is a reason Facebook drew the line at 13 years.”