Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Childhood lost in a web

There are many laws in the world and in India to protect adult users of the internet against crimes and other ills that spread through social media. A recent law enacted by a US state, points to the need for a law protecting Indian children from the ills of social media

By Sujit Bhar

The varied usages of social media probably remain a mystery, even to their founders. The usages are sometimes exotic and sometimes helpful to society. Then there are also usages that are downright toxic, evil. If one compares it to the discovery of fire, to cite an example, its cooking and heating pleasures exist alongside the burn, the destruction. Fire is not an evil tool; it does exactly what its user wants it to.

The evils and the toxicity perpetrated through social media have been so overpowering that most countries, including India, are now writing empowering legislations. There is a long way to go, but the battles have started.

Yet, beyond these legislations, beyond the contours and attention of the governments, there is another evil of social media that continues unabated, surreptitiously destroying the minds and the health of the youth and children. The issue has fermented into toxicity, yet had been treated as a minor aberration. One legal action has come to light recently where a new Florida law has restricted social media for people under 16 in the US. It was passed recently by the state’s Republican-led legislature.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has signed the bill into law. The law bans children aged below 14 from social media platforms and requires 14 and 15-year-olds to get parental consent. The law is supposed to protect children from online risks to their mental health.

The law goes further, requiring social media platforms to terminate or delete the accounts of all children under 14 and of those under 16 who have failed to get parental consent. A third party verification system is required to screen out all underage people in those categories. Initially, the bill had banned all children under 16 from social media, but DeSantis had vetoed that version of the bill, saying it limited parents’ rights. The amendment was carried out before the governor finally put his signature. The law comes into effect on July 1.

There have been protests about this, citing First Amendment rights, but the law is now real.

This item of news from afar sets the cat among the pigeons. There have been a few instances of detailed studies of social media effects on impressionable and vulnerable little minds, but they have not been treated as serious problems. While all maintain that there have been good effects—such as help with schooling during the Covid pandemic—ill effects are now also rampant.

According to a 2023 article in Healthychildren.org, hosted by the American Academy of Paediatrics, “More than one-third (35%) of 13-17-year-olds (in the US) reported using social media sites such as YouTube, TikTok, Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook ‘almost constantly’ in 2022.” That was even after the Covid pandemic had abated.

The article lists the various ways in which such social media content can influence young people. Such content can give rise to depression and anxiety among teens. While social connection is one positive reason for the child to use social media, in which sharing photos and comments can keep them in touch with peers and family who live far away and help them in cooperative action through groups they join, an overload of social media can push out other important activities. These include being in person with friends and family, exercise, or getting enough sleep.

These issues aren’t as trifling as they seem. There is a sense in understanding that the world does not exist within social media platforms and that there is much more to the world outside of those portals.

Learning has been a great advantage of social media, but fake news and misinformation can ruin the entire social fabric in which the child exists, as well as the family he/she lives in. That problem apart, there are also innocuously presented dangerous content that the child may chance upon or may be lured towards through peer pressure that may be ruinous for his/her mental and physical health. For example, last year social media links had led many children in India and around the world to join a game called Blue Whale challenge that had led to many deaths that were later categorised as suicidal deaths. Even the Indian Supreme Court had termed the game a “national problem”. It was banned, but by then many young lives were lost, many remained scarred.


Depression among young people is rampant these days, and social media may have had a hand in this, say some studies. Body shaming, for example, may look like an elitist endeavour, if at all an endeavour. However, for impressionable young minds looking for peer acceptability, this becomes important. In the physical world, one has the ability to run away from perceptive danger and mix with other groups. Social media can tie one down to virtual locales from which there may seem no escape. The result can be severe depression.

According to some studies, young people who used more social media were more likely to report depression symptoms. The jury is out on the final assessment of whether the two are definitely correlated, but the statistics are stark. Another study says that active participation in social media creates less depression than in those who are passive participants. Whatever the reasons, the relationship seems established.


As mainline media disintegrates in India, social media, with unverified content takes over as king. This has led to the proliferation of fake news, deliberate spread of misinformation to brew trouble, crimes and a sharp degradation of social norms. While cybercrime is everywhere, using increasingly sophisticated methods, including AI, social groups take up the responsibility of mentally torturing other ‘victims’.

In an interconnected world, where technology is omnipresent, one cannot escape the use of cyber techniques and the internet. Children get drawn into the process, too, with behavioural changes pulling them into a system of abuse through unacceptable content.

Hence there is a need for social media laws in India as well. There is a need for laws to provide remedies in both civil and criminal manner for protecting children from prohibited content.

In India, however, so far laws regarding social media are restricted to protecting adult problems. These are:

The Information Technology Act (2000): This law deals with matters related to e-commerce and cybercrime, with the main objective being to grant legal recognition to transactions performed via electronic data exchange or any other means rather than paper-based communication. It also provides legal recognition to digital signatures and gives legal sanctions to enable e-governance. Under this law, penalties are prescribed for different frauds and crimes involving computers or a network.

Indian Penal Code: Certain provisions of this law have been amended in the Information Technology Act which includes the Indian Evidence Act of 1872, the Reserve Bank of India Act of 1934, and the Banker’s Book Evidence Act of 1891.

Some of the sections of the IT Act do the following:

Section 66A: This gives the power to arrest anyone sending messages or posting content on social media that could be deemed offensive. Also, it’s offensive to send any wrong or false information for the purpose of spreading hatred, annoyance, inconvenience, obstruction, danger, enmity, insult, and criminal intimidation. Such activity is punishable and as per the law, three years of imprisonment with a fine is the penalty imposed on the criminal.

Section 69A: This gives the government authority to monitor, decrypt or intercept any information that is not consistent with provisions of the government. It empowers the authorities to block internet sites by following an appropriate procedure. The recent banning of Chinese applications was done under Section 69A of the IT Act.

The Constitution of India: It provides basic rights to Indian citizens which helps them in protecting their basic life interests. If these rights are violated, various remedial measures are provided to them. In Article 19 of the Indian Constitution, the Right to freedom of speech and expression is mentioned which ensures that every individual has the right to present their thoughts to others.

Legislations in India today cover a lot of ground. However, there is no legislation that is child-specific. This is necessary, because the needs of the child are often very different from the needs of the adult world. India need not use a carbon copy of the Florida law. India’s law will have to be specifically tailored to the needs of the Indian child, living in Indian families, leading Indian lives.

Possibly this is a good time to take a deep look into this.

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