A recent study based on a survey conducted by a legal aid and pro-rights body, 'Ain O Shalish Kendra (ASK), says that 64 per cent of the children it surveyed have their own mobile phones. As told by the posts and telecommunications minister recently, there are at the moment some 110 million mobile phone users in the country. So, the ubiquity of the mobile phones in Bangladesh society is a well-recognised fact. But what is of concern here is that many of these mobile phones are used, even owned, by children. That is so because many parents think a mobile set in their children's hand looks both fashionable and smart unaware that, unwittingly, they are pushing their children into the potentially dangerous world of cyberbullying of various forms including the vicious dark underworld of pornography. Some parents, though they can afford to own smartphones are not adequately informed or educated about how to scan, scrutinise and manage the contents that constantly bombard the screens of their devices. Most of such of parents or guardians consider browsing the internet or visiting social media platforms through the mobile sets just fun and they feel good, even proud, that their children can smartly operate the devices. Other parents who are educated and aware about the potential risks these devices pose are either lazy or so busy otherwise that they do not have the time and energy to look into what exactly their children are doing with their smartphones or laptops. These are the children that are in real danger of being victims of cyberbullying or being exploited and abused sexually through the internet.
The study in question has found that 36 per cent of the girl children covered by the survey were victims of sexual harassment by their friends. More than 27 per cent of the adult male online molesters were familiar with the victim children, while only 18 per cent of the adult molesters were unknown to the victims. Though the sample size of the study was rather small, still it provides a microcosm of what is happening to our children thus exposed to the virtual underworld of crime through the innocuous-looking mobile sets within the reach of or owned by our children.
The pandemic has further increased the vulnerability of our children to such toxic contents on the internet and the social media. As these children are confined in their homes, they spend most of their time browsing the internet or the social media, talking with their friends, relatives or acquaintances on the mobile phones. With the use of apps like Messenger, WhatsApp, Viber etc, such telephonic communication can be continued for hours free of charge. The excuses for remaining glued to the laptops or smartphones are also in plenty: attending online classes, sharing or discussing lessons with friends and so on. The irony is that parents who are otherwise well aware of the risks such long hours spent by their children on smartphones or computers involve often overlook the matter. In that case, how can our children be protected from online cyberbullying or sexual exploitation and harassments? Should their access to the mobile sets be restricted? That is hardly a practical option for the simple reason that with the passage of time people are going to become more and more dependent on the digital devices like smartphones. And since our children will be in charge of tomorrow's digital world, the very thought of reducing their access to the technology is inconceivable. So, the onus of addressing this harmful aspects of the contents served through the various digital platforms rests on the shoulders of internet service-providing companies, social thinkers and policymakers in the governments.
Especially, the multinational tech behemoths like Google, Facebook, and Twitter and so on have a big role to play to control and filter the contents served through their media. In our particular case, the government in consultation with these companies should develop protocols to filter toxic contents harmful for children.