A reflection on incidents of juvenile cyber crime in India
By Ushosee Pal
Cases of youth cyber crime
It began early in May in New Delhi when a school girl shared screenshots of a chat group named ‘Bois Locker Room’(1) which consisted of 16-18 years old school going boys sharing photos of their female classmates (all underage), morphing them into sexual images, and discussing ways to gang-rape them. A few days later, another incident came to light where the police found a girl posing as a boy on another social media platform, discussing and suggesting her own rape with her fellow male classmate so as to ‘test his character’.(2) The timing for these instances surfacing now, when most of the world is at home glued to one or the other screen is not accidental.
The coronavirus pandemic has increased the use of internet in general and especially the use of social media(3), more so now, with the rise of work/study from home as quarantine measures. As of now, one of the strictest lockdown protocols is being followed in India which has a billion plus population and has the second highest number of internet users after China.(4) As a result there has been a significant increase in cybercrime.(5) According to recent reports, cybercrime against women such as indecent exposure, rape threats and extortion have increased in India.(6) Meanwhile, IT giant Cognizant faced a major crisis with the anonymous Maze ransomware threatening to leak out vital information which cost the company 50-70 million USD in losses.(7) With the use of video conferencing apps going through the roof, there have been cases of organized harassment wherein uninvited people have been entering conference meetings and disrupting them with abusive remarks and sharing pornographic materials.(8) Things have snowballed in the present environment to the extent that UNICEF has come out with guidelines to protect children from cyber-bullying during the COVID-19 outbreak.(9) With all this data in mind, it is not surprising that during this time, these two shocking incidents of juvenile cybercrime and sexual harassment have come to light in New Delhi – both involving popular photo sharing social media platforms. We are looking at a crisis within a crisis – or rather, an amplification of an existing crisis.
Generational changes towards the middle class lifestyle
This parallel crisis we are staring at today is however, only brought to the fore by the circumstances. It has been there over a long time and several processes have aided and shaped it. At first, I must begin by saying that my observations and comments in this article are exclusively on the affluent upper and upwardly mobile middle classes in India who have access to well-paying jobs, private education and healthcare. At a personal level, I have observed a trend amongst parents of teens, largely people in their 40s today. These are people who were born in the 1970s and 1980s when Indian markets were still governed by the socialist welfare state. These are people who had children 2000 onwards when it had already been a decade of the opening up of the Indian market to the world. The year 2000 to 2010 saw a steady annual increase of disposable personal income from roughly 18 million INR in 2000 to more than 60 million INR in 2010. In 2019, this figure has risen to nearly 207 million INR – an exponential growth, to say the least.(10) Likewise, consumer spending has grown from approximately 4400 billion INR in 2005 to 21000 billion INR in 2019.(11) The friendly relationship between disposable personal income and consumer spending has a lot to do with the creation of a highly paying job market for people with specialized professional qualifications.
In the private sector, the advent of Multi National Corporations (MNC) and the Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) model, encashed India’s relatively cheap and abundant labour force from all walks of life, but the greatest beneficiaries were the aspirational middle class who sought to gain status and affluence. At the same time, the government itself greatly increased pay and benefits for its officers making an elite class of handsomely paid bureaucrats and technocrats. The increased availability of multifarious consumer goods in the market and increased income, affordability greatly increased especially for the upwardly mobile middle class. The millennial turn saw an exponential rise in the number of shopping malls, e-commerce platforms, hotels and restaurants, multiplex theatres, gyms, and supermarkets. These flourished in the newborn market of demands and affordability. The thought process that came with this was – ‘I would give my child everything that I never had’.
At this juncture, it is pertinent to provide my own context and vantage point. I grew up in the 90s, when India had just begun to open up its markets. At the age of 28, I have practically lived through the transition from letters to smartphones. My father was a scientist working with the government, and we lived inside the campus. He grew up in a small village in West Bengal (now a small town) and received government education on scholarship. His childhood had fewer toys, fewer clothes. He had four sisters and old parents to look after. He had huge financial liabilities when we were growing up. As a child, I shared everything with my sibling. Even school textbooks would be passed. Nothing was ‘mine and his’, everything was ‘ours’. We received private education and to be able to afford it, both our parents worked six days a week. We had a childhood of judiciousness but not deprivation like our parents. We did get toys to play with, books to read, new clothes every year, and good quality education in the capital city of India. My brother and I – we saw the advent of video games, play stations and cable television. Our parents provided us with what they could afford. Mostly it had to be a special occasion for us to be dining out, ordering food at home was unheard of. We had to earn certain things (like the latest Harry Potter book in my case) by showing good behaviour and academic merit in school. So my brother and I grew up much more privileged (or rather, comfortable) than both our parents, but because most items of consumption were unaffordable or unavailable in the market, we never saw luxurious indulgence. Moreover, our parents believed that certain things would not be given to us even if they were affordable and no matter how well-behaved or smart we were. I often used to think to myself that when I earn my own money, I would buy this or that for myself.
The new consumeristic lifestyle
The main difference that I have seen between my parents and those who became parents in the next decade, post millennium is that of the mindset. With increased income, fewer or more manageable liabilities and, increasing availability in the market – their consumption appetite and capacity began to grow. Judiciousness was no longer a virtue. I used a laptop for the first time when I was 16. It was a basic one, it was my father’s and I wasn’t allowed to use it unless I needed it for homework. In a couple of years, we had a broadband internet connection at home for the first time. Smartphones were still a couple of years away. I got my first personal cell phone only when I started going to college and really needed one. These would sound like compromises and sacrifices today. Children of the upwardly mobile middle classes (which have now emerged as the new elite), born after the millennium do not know of a time when every member of the family did not have a cell phone.
It begins with giving children the best of everything – fancy clothing, expensive toys, extravagant holidays, trips to shopping malls and gaming arcades, and so on. Birthday parties no longer mean inviting a bunch of friends at home, putting some balloons on the walls, cutting a cake, some good food cooked at home, and board games. I have now attended umpteen ‘first birthday’ bashes at banquets and hotels with colour schemes, themes, designer cakes, catering and expensive return gifts. Things the child would not even remember let alone appreciate. I have seen children throw loud and messy tantrums about the return gifts not being what they wanted it to be, at the very venue, and I have seen parents being unapologetic about it. Then comes the idea of giving monthly allowance or ‘pocket money’ to children especially teens and not keeping track of what it is being spent on. Every kid today has a cell phone, a laptop or a tab, or sometimes all three and more before graduating school. Even schools have become more encouraging of these habits so as to aid e-learning. At several public spaces like restaurants and public transport, I have seen parents handing a screen to the child to be glued to so that they don’t need to look out for him/her. With cheap and easily available mobile internet, a large number of adolescents use social media in India, often unsupervised. Conversely, some teens also block out their parents from their social media pages due to too much interference and supervision (something very characteristic of Indian parenting). There’s no middle path.
It’s now the era of parenting that gives children a life full of relentless consumerism. Several parents do it out of peer pressure – to maintain their status and social obligations. Children are raised to become hedonistic. Sharing isn’t encouraged. I have seen three kids sitting together in a room playing games on their individual tabs, all of them under the age of 10. Moreover, if a kid gets everything without having to ask for it, the kid is likely to grow up to be entitled. This makes them maladjusted in the sense that they cannot process any form of real or perceived denial or deprivation.
Problems of patriarchal socialization and dark side of youth social media engagement
If consumerism is now combined with the largely patriarchal socialization, the sense of entitlement to the attention of the opposite sex gets exacerbated. For generations, parents have set poor examples for children. Men have abused and demeaned their wives and daughters in public and at home; women have done the same to other women if they found them to be some kind of a threat. This has only worsened with the culture of mindless and endless consumption. Parents themselves set poor examples. Sexist and misogynistic jokes are thrown around at the above mentioned parties or on social media and chat groups which are also used by a large number of adolescents. Pop culture content such as songs, films and TV shows have become more and more graphic even in portrayals of objectification of women. There are scenes and metaphors of rape, molestation and abuse, often justified by producers as essential to the authenticity of the content. Even worse are the portrayals of empowerment which show a complete annihilation of patriarchy by women, but not by men. The narrative twists the power game further. It doesn’t address the pressure patriarchy puts on men. As a result, often these misrepresented portrayals end up either in vilifying feminism or create a poorly understood version of it. Sometimes these ideas and portrayals are just as problematic as pornography if not more. All of this so-called U/A material is consumed by children in addition to the largely patriarchal socialization, during their formative years when they still haven’t been exposed to the adult world in real life. All of this goes unchecked by parents who sometimes themselves are addicted to such problematic materials.
With cheap, easily available internet and little to no parental guidance on what constitutes cyber crime or how to protect one-self from the dark side of the digital incidents of cyber bullying and abuses by juveniles pile up. With the ongoing pandemic, screen time has increased all the more for children. Eventually, we hear about serious incidents of cyber crime and bullying in shock, on prime time news. But should it be shocking? Should it really be a surprise that teenage boys are talking about gang raping their female classmates possibly because they rejected their advances? With the kind of content on social media that goes unchecked, they are exposed to rape culture every single day. The patriarchy internalized at home only amplifies it. Should it really come off as a shock that a teenage girl tried to judge a boy’s character by tempting him to speak about raping her? Maybe she wanted to have a sense of control in a world of skewed gender dynamics. Or, maybe her idea of having more power over the opposite sex came from some misrepresented, superficial ideas of empowerment and equality from content on social media or digital media platforms which she could easily watch on her smartphone.
My conviction that we adults are actually failing our children seems to have become an answer to nearly everything I can think of. Be it environmental awareness, civic sense, gender equality or digital awareness, we are not looking out for our children at large at a societal level.
I do not believe that children should be deprived of access to technology or the digital world. I do not condone denying them opportunities to do well in life. But it’s time to reflect on having checks and balances in place. Do we really need to give a child an iPhone on his/her 16th birthday when we don’t even know whether he/she will be able to afford that sort of a lifestyle in future? Indulgence is habit forming, especially so for children. The economy is in deep crisis yet again. The job losses due to the pandemic are very real. In such circumstances, the thing that is likely to hurt the most is the withdrawal from this new lack of access to extravagant consumption and its affordability. In short, this pandemic has just begun to reveal to us a maladjusted generation that’s not used to the idea of judiciousness. This is just the tip of the ice-berg. I haven’t even addressed the problems of lack of sex-education in schools, easy access to pornography, drugs and alcohol, juvenile criminality and delinquency amongst the poorer masses (especially in urban areas), unhealthy and unfair competition and so much more for all those issues require their own separate articles. But it indeed is about time we regroup and reflect on what truly matters.
Cover illustration by New York Times.
About the Author
Ushosee Pal is a doctoral scholar and a UGC fellow at the Department of sociology, Jamia Millia Islamia. She is currently working on housing policies and participatory planning shaping slum redevelopment in Delhi. She is an alumna of Hindu College and Delhi School of Economics, University of Delhi.