Mumbai: As you battle your kids over the number of hours they can spend online in the summer break, spare a thought for the stranger on their friends' list and the cyber bully broadcasting awful things about them. Just because she is 8, doesn't mean it's not happening to her.

Eleven year-old Ritika Jain (name changed) created her account on ‘Facebook’ after she found all her classmates making after-school plans on the networking site. Three months later, the child, whose father is a Pune-based businessman, had more friends on ‘Facebook’ than she knew personally. Many, she hadn't met at all, but had accepted their 'friend request' since, in her school, the more friends you had on ‘Facebook’, the more popular you were.

In July, six months after Jain opened her account, she went missing. She was abducted by her father's rival, who had befriended her on the site under an alias and lured her to meet him at a Mac Donald's for a burger.

After Jain was rescued, her parents approached Sagar Rahurkar, a consultant at the Asian School of Cyber Laws, Pune, whose faculty had assisted the Indian government in drafting the Information Technology Act (2000).

"They wanted me to teach their child to use Facebook," says the 23 year-old techno-legal consultant.

Jain's parents took the right step. The ‘Norton Online Family Report 2010’ studied the online behaviour of children in 14 countries and found that "most Indian kids do not follow common sense rules while online."

More than 200 children between the age of 8 and 17 and 500 parents took part in the research across India. The report stated that 77 percent children have received sexually explicit messages online, but 50 percent of the parents didn't know about it.

Only 24 percent parents knew that an anonymous person had tried to befriend their child on a social networking site with malafide intent, while this had happened to over 55 percent of the children.

Taking a cue from Jain's case, Rahurkar and the ASCL faculty began to hold cyber camps for children between 8 to 18 years. The 10 hour-long camps spread over 10 days will cover child pornography, cyber bullying, music and movie piracy, phishing, safe monetary transactions, and of course, correct social networking behaviour.

More cases, younger victims

While much has been said about older teenagers falling prey to or committing cyber crimes, experts note that the age of victims has been decreasing steadily. Vidya Reddy, who began Tulir Child Abuse Prevention and Healing Centre in Chennai in 2004 to provide psycho-social and legal assistance to victims, agrees.

Back then, she claims, she had never imagined that she would receive cases involving acts of abuse over the Internet and cell phone. Now, she says, every case of child sexual abuse she receives has a cyber angle to it. The opposite is true, as well. Every case of cyber bullying that Reddy has come across through the workshops with school children has a sexual angle to it.

What's more, the age of victims has decreased -- where two years ago, Reddy was holding workshops for Standard XI children, today she has hectic sessions with Standard VIII and IX kids, "all of whom are on ‘Facebook’, and have faced some form of cyber bullying".

"We get close to 400 cases a year and the questions we ask them have changed. We now enquire whether they have been photographed or bullied on a social networking site. We also go through their profile pages. Contrary to what many think, ICT crimes are not an urban phenomenon," says Reddy.

Monitor, stay aware

However, not many parents realise the importance of monitoring their child's online activities, points out Reddy, and often react to situations too late. "Children and parents don't take online behaviour seriously, till things blow up in their face. Parents are blind to how fast things are changing for our children.

They'll raise an issue with their 15 year-old sitting with a friend in a park, but they don't realise that their child could be having a highly sexualised conversation with someone in his / her bedroom. What sort of blindness is that?" asks Reddy.

"These cases are on the rise, and many children come to me seeking help for depression, where one of the underlying causes is cyber bullying," child psychiatrist Pervin Dadachanji  says.

Dadachanji recalls a case of a 12 year-old girl with severe depression, who was a victim of cyber bullying. "Someone had morphed her photo onto a naked body, hacked into her Facebook account and posted it on her wall. The girl was riled relentlessly."

Your guide to addressing cyber bullying

Advocate Debarati Halder, managing director, Centre for Cyber Victim Counselling, offers handy tips on how to recognise and deal with cyber bullying:

>> What is it?  Children in the age group of 8-17 are targeted over the Internet through interactive devices such as computers, cell-phones, PDAs etc. It could range from a hateful message to morphed photographs and wall posts that everyone can see and comment on. It could be done against teachers and children.

>> Is it illegal?  Sending annoying, defamatory messages publicly could be tagged 'illegal'. Section 66A of the Information Technology Act 2000 (amended in 2008) states that any information, message and mail which is grossly offensive or has a menacing character; which, the sender of the original message knows to be false and / or annoying, which can cause danger, insult, hatred, criminal intimidation, enmity and ill-will to the other is restricted as 'prohibited' and the wrong-doer could be punished with imprisonment for three years and with fine.