Play Station

Posted by Prasad Krishna at Dec 14, 2010 02:05 PM |
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Parents needn’t panic, the internet can also be a haven for kids.

I recently came across a report about a village in Haryana which banned single women from using cellphones because the instrument in question has apparently led to couples getting together and eloping. That goes perfectly with what I’m discussing this week — the perception that the internet is the realm of the dirty, the desired and the forbidden.

Just last week, I heard three different people lamenting that children are addicted to technology, that technology corrupts our youth, and that technology is responsible for the decline of social values in the country. We need to address this paranoia about technology irrevocably transforming our world for better or worse. Particularly at this juncture, when this perception informs policies, regulation and governance about young people and their access to the internet.

My youngest correspondent in the Digital Natives programme —let’s call him M as he prefers not to be named — is in Class VI. He lives in Bangalore and runs an online community for other children at school to talk about growing up. A closed community on Facebook, it protects the privacy and identity of the participants, has a moderated access policy, and is a safe haven for children to talk about different issues, ranging from studies to the social dynamics of the schoolyard. M has been running this community for over a year now and while I do not have access to it (being a rank outsider and falling on the wrong side of the age-line), I understand from him and his friends that it has become the “coolest hangout” for almost everybody in the school, where they share, in safety, the aches and pains of teenage life.

A teacher at the school recently heard about the community and was outraged that an unmonitored, unauthorised space for free-for-all discussions was being controlled by “mere kids” and demanded that the community be shut down. With the power vested in her by the academic system, she pulled enough strings, called enough parents, and forced M and the other moderators to forfeit their passwords and shut down the community, including the archive of discussions and conversations that had grown in the last year. The parents and authorities were worried, M informs me, that “children would do all kinds of wrong things” if left to themselves. His teacher, who’s never really been on Facebook, and has vague notions about the internet, sternly announced: “The internet is a dangerous place, you can’t run it!”

M and his friends were enraged but powerless, dependent as they were on school and parental authorities for their access to online resources. Their community is no longer available on Facebook. They have been deprived of a virtual haven in which they could have discussions without feeling vulnerable. In a high-pressure academic environment, otherwise fraught with competition and rigid rules that stymie social interaction, it was the only real place for peer-to-peer bonding, and it’s now lost to them.

This story is not very dissimilar from many other instances that young users of technology often report, where their intentions and ambitions are not viewed as serious, and where elders look at their interaction with suspicion and intrigue. Parents, teachers and policy-makers presume that digital and internet technologies do bad things to children, and for them, it is time to wake up and smell the code. Technologies aren’t innately good or bad. When you hit yourself in the hand, you don’t blame the hammer. Technologies offer tools to perform different actions. For these digital natives, it’s a tool which provides public spaces for interaction, discussion and mobilisation. For many who live in urban environments and have regimented schedules of academic productivity, the bubbles on the internet are becoming the only viable alternative outlets for expression. The next time you want to apportion blame, try to look at the real problem, rather than conveniently blame it on technologies.

Technologies are what we make of them, and the paranoid urge to curb and control them denies young users their spaces of belonging and forces them to reach out through non-transparent ways. “The community shall find its way back. We were not doing anything wrong,” M’s best friend tells me. And M grins, slightly wickedly, pointing at his friend, “The only harm I would have caused is if I had thrown my laptop at him and hit him in the eye. And I would never do that. I love my laptop.”

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