Ahead of Safer Internet Day, experts discuss the growing prevalence of sextortion among young Indians.
New Delhi: After months of being wooed by a tuition mate, a Class VII Mumbai girl sent him her nude images through Instagram private messages. He shared the photos with his friends.
A Class IX student, also from Mumbai, became suicidal after a classmate hacked her boyfriend’s Instagram account and gained access to her nude photos. He wanted the number of a girl he liked and threatened the couple he would make the photos public if they didn’t do so.
As the world observes ‘Safer Internet Day’ on 5 February, Indian parents are being warned against the prevalence of cyber-bullying and one of its most notorious forms — sextortion — which can thrust unwitting teenagers to the edge.
Interpol defines sextortion as a form of blackmail where sexual information or images are used to extort money or a favour, which is typically sexual in nature.
In a world where more and more people, including teenagers, are living a big part of their life through social media, often keeping the spark of romance alive through online exchanges, internet users may find themselves increasingly vulnerable to sextortion.
According to a 2015 United Nations report, up to 40 per cent of young people aged below 18 years self-generated and shared sexually explicit content online.
While figures for sextortion itself were not available, a survey by tech research firm Comparitech last year on parents from 28 countries showed that Indian children were the most common victims of cyber-bullying.
According to the survey, where 32 per cent of parents reported their child being cyber-bullied in 2016, 37 per cent did so in 2018.
Girls not always the victims
The fact that Indian students are getting caught up in sextortion and cyber-bullying, especially via private-messaging services of social media portals, has been flagged by a Mumbai-based nonprofit Responsible Netism.
Sonali Patankar, the founder of Responsible Netism, told ThePrint that the nonprofit had held 350 teaching sessions between June and October 2018 at 25 Maharashtra board schools in Mumbai to provide in-depth awareness about cybercrimes against children and how to tackle the issue.
According to her, the sessions were altogether attended by 20,000 students of Classes VI to IX from all socioeconomic strata, 650 teachers, and 5,000 parents.
It was during these sessions, she added, that students approached her and her team about the aforementioned incidents, one of which ThePrint confirmed with the relevant school principal.
In the incident involving the Class VII girl, Patankar said the offending boy was “warned that such acts are punishable under the POCSO [The Protection of Children from Sexual Offences] Act”.
Patankar said there were at least 35 instances of students seeking help for issues arising from sextortion, “most of them involving a demand for sexual favours, while a few sought money”.
She added that her interactions with the students defied the common perception that girls were more often victims than perpetrators of cyber-bullying.
“Both male and female students were morphing faces of their peers on to nude photographs and sharing [them] on social media,” she said.
The fact that bullying affects youngsters regardless of gender is backed by research: According to a 2012 study by Microsoft, girls and boys aged 8-17 years experience near equal amounts of cyber-bullying.
Sources aware of Instagram’s operations said, “Instagram investigates any reports and has zero tolerance when it comes to content or behaviour that puts the privacy and safety of minors at risk”.
Instagram allows users even below 13 years to have an account, but such profiles require the bio to clearly say the account is managed by an adult, the sources added.
In September 2018, the photo-sharing portal also launched guidelines for parents to help them understand how to keep children safe on Instagram.
Instagram typically does not monitor Direct Messages, the privately sent messages, but a company spokesperson said it will launch an investigation if someone reports a message.
“Direct is a private space, people can report content to us in Direct by tapping on the message and selecting ‘Report’,” added the spokesperson.
‘No quick fix’
Anna Correa, the principal of Mumbai’s Saint Stanislaus High School, which participated in the cyber-awareness programme, said parental attitudes appeared to be a big factor in adolescents turning to sextortion and cyber-bullying.
The offending students, she added, often experienced turbulence at home in the form of “an abusive or negligent parent, divorced or separated parents”.
Nirali Bhatia, a Mumbai psychologist familiar with adolescent sextortion, said in cases involving teenagers, the parents of the victim and offender were usually the last to know.
When they did find out, she added, they showed a mix of anger, surprise and denial before accepting their child had been sexually active or had subjected a peer to extortion.
“Some parents are adamant and refuse to cooperate, saying their child could never do such a thing,” she said.
Patankar said her nonprofit encouraged parents to be ‘digital guardians’.
“Parents need to be aware of digital trends and apps popular among teens and be updated on new internet slang and acronyms teens adopt when they want to communicate on risque topics like sex, addictive games and drugs,” she added.
“Teenagers will date, and exploring their sexuality is a part of maturing,” said Bhatia. “The best option is to kill your teenager’s curiosity at home. Initiate conversations around apps like Tinder and Instagram, and possible dangers like sextortion so your kid can anticipate such risks.”
Correa said there was no quick fix to the problem. “The only solution is that parents and educationalists send a consistent, strong message that cyber-bullying, hacking and sextortion are wrong. It’s not cool or fun to do,” she added.
She said frequent sessions on cyber safety for students would help too. “This way, victimised students are encouraged to speak up, else they simply keep quiet out of fear and shame,” Correa added.
Unfortunately, “there are no apps or technology to prevent sextortion that we are aware of”, said Patankar.
Patankar and Bhatia agreed that the most effective tool parents could use to protect their children is an open line of communication, so teenagers can come to them in times of distress.