It's not okay

Updated: May 23, 2020, 22:00 IST | Dalreen Ramos, Sukanya Datta | Mumbai

Recent disturbing cases of cyberbullying have exposed its normalisation over time. Experts explain the mindset of perpetrators and how to fight them during the lockdown.

On May 3, screenshots of an Instagram group chat called Bois Locker Room — where teenage boys in Delhi reportedly shared pictures of girls without their consent and objectified them — surfaced. This set off a social media storm of horror stories of similar kinds of violation amid a nationwide lockdown, all of them with a common thread: cyberbullying.

 

Defined by the UNICEF as "bullying with the use of digital technologies", including social media, messaging and gaming platforms and phones, cyberbullying is aimed at "scaring, angering or shaming those who are targeted". While reported instances of cyber-stalking/bullying of women and children increased from 542 in 2017 to 739 in 2018 as per the National Crime Records Bureau's data, the fact remains that a lot of survivors, especially kids, are hesitant to approach authorities or parents for help, due to stigma. At a time when people are already grappling with social distancing, we speak to survivors and experts to find out how cyberbullying can be tackled.

Lockdown impact

The locker-room case took place at a time when people are spending long hours online. "The chat was run by a group of South Delhi boys, mostly teenagers, who would randomly add people," says 21-year-old college student Haris Khan, whose minor friend was part of the group. "When my friend was added to the chat, he didn't realise it. While going through his chats, he realised that he didn't know the boys. The group was filled with pictures of women — friends, acquaintances or even random users — that the boys passed sexually explicit comments on. Before exiting, my friend took screenshots of the chats and sent it to one of his female friends, whose picture was circulated," explains Khan. The girl, also a friend of Khan, then reached out to him. "Khan made a group of the girls who could be identified from the screenshots. A lot of them were minors who were traumatised," said the girl, who did not wish to be named. The screenshots of the chat, published by some of the survivors, went viral, unearthing countless other 'locker rooms' and exposing several such bullies. The Delhi Commission of Women issued a notice to Instagram and Delhi Police to take cognisance of the matter, and an 18-year-old who was part of the group was arrested, while other minors were questioned.

Haris Khan
Haris Khan

However, the girl faced a lot of backlash, which she could not do much about fearing for her safety in the lockdown. "Me and the other girls started getting death threats. One boy got my contact number and threatened me. I destroyed my SIM. Every time a girl raises her voice, she receives hate," she adds.

Roots in patriarchy

This, however, isn't a standalone case. "Growing up, such 'locker rooms' have existed not only on social media groups, but in and outside classrooms, too," shares Khan. The survivor mid-day spoke to said the fact that it happens online lets the accused believe that they can get away with it. "They feel safe behind fake usernames and private chats. Cyberbullying has been so normalised that people don't take it seriously," she adds.

 

Chintan Girish Modi

Chintan Girish Modi

Where does this bullying stem from? Chintan Girish Modi, a city-based educator who conducts workshops on gender justice and queer rights, feels a lot of it has to do with body shaming, which is deeply entrenched in patriarchal societies. "Not just girls, boys, too, are bullied for various reasons like being tender, having different interests, not having facial hair, etc. In the process of meeting patriarchal expectations about what it means to be a man, they dehumanise themselves and also inflict violence on girls, and queer and trans people," he explains.

Preeti Asgaonkar

Preeti Asgaonkar

Psychologist Preeti Asgaonkar, who works with a school in Mumbai, says the problem arises because gender sensitisation has never been part of our learning. "The bullies are usually those who have conduct issues, antisocial tendiences, or just want to be cool; they have always tested the limit," she adds.

What the law says

Abha Singh
Abha Singh

"There are no special anti-cyberbullying laws in India. In cases of sexual offences against children, the POCSO Act is applicable," says lawyer Abha Singh. She points out that cyberbullying can take multiple forms: harassment, denigration, impersonation, outing and trickery. The difference between cyber-stalking and bullying, she adds, is that of age, ie, if it's an adolescent, it's cyberbullying, but if an adult is involved, it's cyber-stalking. After the IPC was amended in 2013, cyber-stalking is a criminal offence. Chapter 11 of the IT Act provides remedies against cyberbullying under sections 66, 66 (E)1, and 672. The IPC also provides remedies against a defamatory act or an act outraging a woman's modesty.

As for how the punishment differs when the accused is a minor, Singh says, "The IT Act does not include any provisions relating to the prevention/punishment/judicial procedure for crimes like cyberbullying by minors. If the accused is a minor, the Juvenile Justice Act would apply."

 

Singh adds that there aren't uniform regulations for schools to prevent bullying, especially cyberbullying. But if bullying takes place in schools, then the Maharashtra Prohibition of Ragging Act, 1999, is applicable. "Under section 6, any student against whom there's a ragging complaint must be immediately suspended. If convicted, they will not be eligible for re-admission for five years. If the head of the educational institution fails to take action against ragging, it would amount to a case of 'deemed abetment' under section 7, punishable with up to two years in jail."

Reach out for help

Cyberbullying always leaves a digital footprint, which can be used as evidence, says Vishal Thakur, DCP, Mumbai cyber police station. "The charges are applied on a case-to-case basis, depending on what information has been compromised." During the lockdown, when going to the police station might be difficult, Thakur urges victims to get in touch with their nearest police station, dial 100 or email the police. While cyberbullying can't always be prevented, Thakur suggests a few steps to be safe online. "Don't share personal IDs, keep your account private and don't accept friend requests from unknown people."

Mindset change

pic

Here are steps that schools and parents can take:

  • Parents and teachers should watch their words; if you’re body shaming or using misogynistic language, children will pick that up, says Modi.
  • Acknowledge that teens are curious about their bodies and may want to engage in sexual exploration. Instead of preaching abstinence, equip them with proper knowledge.
  • Kids who are queer, trans, non-binary or asexual may feel left out of traditional sexuality education programmes. Consider buying literature with LGBTQIA+ characters, suggests Modi.
  • Schools need to invite experts who can share hands-on tips, like an IT expert who can demonstrate PC/phone settings, says Asgaonkar, adding that parents should update themselves about the latest technology.

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On May 3, screenshots of an Instagram group chat called Bois Locker Room — where teenage boys in Delhi reportedly shared pictures of girls without their consent and objectified them — surfaced. This set off a social media storm of horror stories of similar kinds of violation amid a nationwide lockdown, all of them with a common thread: cyberbullying.

Defined by the UNICEF as "bullying with the use of digital technologies", including social media, messaging and gaming platforms and phones, cyberbullying is aimed at "scaring, angering or shaming those who are targeted". While reported instances of cyber-stalking/bullying of women and children increased from 542 in 2017 to 739 in 2018 as per the National Crime Records Bureau's data, the fact remains that a lot of survivors, especially kids, are hesitant to approach authorities or parents for help, due to stigma. At a time when people are already grappling with social distancing, we speak to survivors and experts to find out how cyberbullying can be tackled.

 

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