When half a dozen residents of a middle-class housing colony in Goregaon, Mumbai, came knocking on the Shedges' door at around 10 pm, the family of four was watching TV. Moments later, their world came crashing down when they were told that their only son, Anil, 14, had shown a pornographic video to two eight-year-old girls in the colony and forced them to enact scenes from it. After some inquiries, the parents discovered that someone their ninth grader son had befriended on a social networking site had encouraged him to do this.
In another instance, when Geetanjali, a banker working in South Mumbai, logged into her 12-year-old daughter Rima's account, she found a strange message in the inbox. Inquisitive, she clicked on the Rima's chat history and was shocked to find that one Sameer with whom her daughter chatted had offered her his hand in marriage once she completed her studies.
The problem that the Shedges and Gitanjali are grappling with today is not uncommon in India's urban households. Hapless parents are unable to stop their children, especially teenagers, from sitting at the computer for hours on end, chatting with all kinds of people on various networking websites. While these sites are seen as tools to reconnect with old school fellows or stay in touch with long lost relatives abroad, there is a clear downside to them.
These days almost every young person seems to be on popular networking sites like as Facebook, Orkut, MySpace, Twitter, LinkedIn and Hi5. Until last year only those above the age of 18 could register, but realising that younger kids were faking their age anyway, the portals have now lowered the permissible age to 13. And this has led to a lot of trouble.
Children, especially teens, are so fascinated with having a virtual conversation that they prefer it to actually meeting up with friends. They spend hours glued to their computer screens - even forgetting their studies and ignoring anything their parents have to say to them. Says Mumbai school teacher Samira Joshi, "If I want to talk to my son, Bipin, I have to send him a message on Facebook!" Adds Delhi-based Anu Singh, who works for an NGO, "If I have to know what's going on in my teenage daughter's life I have to check her Facebook status. She doesn't talk much with me anymore."
Problems arise especially when parents aren't that Net savvy. In the case of the Shedges, although Anil would log in when his mother - a homemaker - was around, she could never decipher what he was up to. Similar is the story of Geetanjali and Mahesh. An average Mumbai working couple who is out of home from 8 am till 8 pm, they thought their daughter Rima was living in comparative security because Mahesh's mother stays with them. But that proved to be a wrong surmise.
Besides social and personality issues, there are physical implications too. Most teens slouch over their screens and all the continuous staring at a monitor and sitting with a wrong posture has led to various ailments. Once unknown conditions like the carpal tunnel syndrome (it occurs when the median nerve, which runs from the forearm into the hand, becomes pressed or squeezed at the wrist causing tingling or numbness in the wrist and fingers), tennis elbow (caused by either abrupt or subtle injury of the muscle and tendon area around the outside of the elbow) and cervical spondylitis (that affects the neck vertebra and muscles) are common in teenagers today.
"If they aren't chatting on their PC then they are online on their mobile! Whenever a parent brings in a teenage child with a complaint of numb fingers, the first question I ask is what social network site is he or she on! Unsuspectingly, the child starts talking animatedly about his/her favourite site and online friends. My advice to such parents is to send their children for swimming, football, cricket, dancing, anything, just to ensure they go out to play and leave their mobile phones behind," reveals Dr D. Shrinivas, Orthopedic surgeon, Inlaks General Hospital, Mumbai.
But motivating children to undertake extra curricular activities is easier said than done. Whatever free time they have is invariably spent in front of the computer. Many children display no interest whatsoever in pursuing hobbies like reading, playing, craftwork and painting. And parents who nag them into pursuing alternative activities are instantly branded as uncool. Teenagers see their insistence as an infringement on their freedom.
Of course, that's not to say that children don't outgrow this phase. Eventually almost everybody does and they even regret having wasted their growing up years. Take Kashmira, 21, who has just started working in a BPO. She says, "When I was a member on Orkut, I lost three precious years by chatting unnecessarily with people. Now I realise I could have learnt a new hobby like playing the guitar. Ever since I began working I hardly get time to do anything else!"
To prevent this from happening with your child, family and marriage counsellor Pratibha Gheewala has some sound advice. She says, "Children don't get into bad habits if parents make it a point to communicate with them when they are young -even as young as two or three. By inculcating family values and developing a bond of trust, all the pitfalls of social networking sites can be overcome."
Adds Prasad Azgoankar, CEO, Interactive Entertainment, one of India's foremost digital marketing companies, "Don't blame the technology. It is fantastic. All that the parents need to do is start talking to the children and be open about it."
What about the teenagers themselves? Don't they have anything to say? Anu Singh's daughter, Aru, 16, puts it this way, "My mom is always keen to know who I am chatting with. She'll keep hovering around the comp when I am online. It is so annoying. Doesn't she trust me? It's not like we don't know that there are all sorts of people online. But we only add those whom we know. Besides it's a great way to learn what's happening in class and also in other schools."
Well, Aru is not wrong. While there have been several instances of teens running into 'virtual' problems, not every child gets into a mess. Many are on these sites for some harmless 'time-pass' or to get help in their studies. Says Dr Sonali Shivalani, a childbirth trainer at Clay India Fitness Center in Mumbai, "Sometimes when my children are absent from school, they get information on the activities of the day by asking their school friends on the Facebook."
But parents need to be in step with technology so that they can monitor these online activities. Singh says, "Some years back I had created a Facebook account. I'm glad that I did. Now I make it a point to log in daily to see her status and read the comments she receives from her friends." Dr Shivalani also believes in keeping an eye on her children, and other parents could learn from her, "I have a son and daughter aged nine and eight. They definitely log on to the Internet but they use it only to get some information for their school projects or things like that. We ensure that they log in only when either my husband or I am around."
(Names of all children and parents have been changed to protect identity.)