THE last thing that parents who have just bought a computer for their childrenís need, want to do is to worry. They have just invested a lot of money in an effort to keep their children abreast with the latest technology. But, soon they find out, as the German philosopher, Immanuel Kant, discovered two centuries ago, there is nothing that is good in itself. Computers are not intrinsically good or bad. It is how you use them that makes them so. Thus, a computer in the hands of a thief is certainly not going to do good whereas it is indispensable for a host of positive activities in a good citizenís hands.
Surfing and chatting
Other than surfing, one of the most common activities on the Net now is chatting. In computer speak, chatting is a synchronous exchange of remarks over a computer network. They are exchanged where you go to a chatroom and "chat" with other like-minded individuals via the Net.
While it is in itself a harmless activity most of the time, excessive chatting can lead to withdrawn children who do not spend enough time with their peers and thus often lack the social skills necessary for everyday life. Such chatting could also lead to the chatters living in a make-believe world of their own.
The difference in this chatting and the face-to face kind is that while chatting you can literally pretend to be anyone and get away with it. You can fabricate a persona, even personas and adopt various names for chatting.
Perils of chatting
While this "liberates" you to a certain extent, it also has its perils. Jenna Bashir, 14, said she was 17 while registering at an adult Website. At the time of writing this article, she was missing from her home in the UK and the police had launched an investigation. She had apparently formed a relationship with a boy who said he was 17 years old, and signed off a message as "your future hubby."
In the high-profile case that got international attention last week, Toby Studabaker, 31, a former US marine, ran off with Shevaun Pennington, 12, said to be a British girl who pretended to be 18. Studabaker is currently being held in Germany, pending his extradition to the UK. Do these things happen in India too?
It happens in India, too
In Mumbai, there was a case of a 16-year-old girl who went missing from her home after she befriended a boy in Muradabad through chatting. The police intervened effectively. In the same city, a married woman, Persis Williams, who allegedly kidnapped 16-year-old Abrar Ashraf Khatri, a VIIth standard student and had a physical relationship with the boy was arrested by the Mumbai police in 2000.
It is not that the authorities are unaware of the problem. In January this year, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister asked her police to evolve new strategies to curb and crack on more sophisticated forms of criminality, including "...the criminal who communicate by cellphone, break and enter by hacking a computer and molest through chatroom."
Why children chat
In India, children do not run away from homes, largely due to economic and social factors, but increasingly the unreal world of chatrooms is where youngsters are spending more and more time. And, you canít check on their internet friends, like you would in the real world.
"Simply because it is fun," says Tina, a teenager when asked why she chatted. Chatting becomes an intimate conversation with people who are not in the immediate peer group and is often an activity in which parents donít participate.
Banning the use of the Internet is not practical, since it is a powerful and positive recourse for education and entertainment. We need the Internet and it can play a very positive role in shaping the personality of childern and equipping them to face the world.
What does a parent do?
Prohibiting chatting at home would also be counterproductive since children will simply go to cyber cafes. So what does a parent do? Be aware and make the children aware too. The parents have to make the effort to know what chatting is all about. They have to tell the children that the world in chatrooms is often make-believe. It should not be mistaken for the real world.
Many parents in India simply take the precaution of placing the computer in a family room. Thus the child is aware that he should not do anything which he does not want his parents or siblings to know about. Being computer-friendly helps, since you can share your experiences and understand what a child wants.
If the computer has to be kept in a childís bedroom make sure that the door of the room is kept open while the computer is on. This helps keep chatting and browsing activities in check.
The children should be told not to give their e-mail ids, addresses and telephone numbers to strangers on the Net. They should also be asked to let the parents know if they feel uncomfortable about the behaviour of anyone in the chatroom.
Under no circumstances should they make an appointment, or talk to someone they have met on the Net without the parentsí approval. In fact, there is a good website, www.chatdanger.com which educates both the parents and the children about chatroom perils.
Specific software that warns parents if sexually explicit words etc are used can also help, but it is not a substitute. In any case it is a difficult balancing act. You want to keep an eye on your child, and at the same time you really donít want to snoop. Another "real world" problem that has ramifications in cyber space!
At the root of this issue is that the Internet seems to grant anonymity to the users. You often tend to go overboard if you feel that you cannot be identified. This is an illusion as most of the Internet abusers can be accurately pinpointed.
Often children feel that they can communicate better with anonymous persons rather than those who see and judge them everydayótheir parents, peers and teachers. The elders have to make the effort to communicate with the children so that they do not feel the need to seek empathy in cyberspace.
A wary eye and warm hugs.
Who said parenting was any different nowadays?