An edtech platform and a social impact consulting firm joined hands to ensure online safety for children
Every one in three children in the world is an internet user. During the pandemic in India, the need for internet for children was deeply felt as those without access could not continue their education remotely. Internet accessibility for the maximum number of people is considered a mark of development and inclusivity. But when it comes to a growing number of minors accessing the digital world it also means a spike in the number of people especially vulnerable to online abuse. Between 2017 and 2020, 24 lakh cases of online child sexual abuse were reported in India. The majority of them were girls under the age of 14.
A big way in which children interact with the online world is through education technology platforms. There are parents who monitor the entertainment programmes their child consumes or restrict their kids’ use of social media. But in the widely approved context of education it is easy to forget that in the online space too a child is just as vulnerable to bullying, stalking or any other form of abuse that exists in a physical space.
Pulkit Jain, co-founder of the Indian edtech platform Vedantu, admitted he was no different: “Did I really understand child safety concerns to begin with? No, I didn’t.” Then one day on LinkedIn he saw a post by Chitra Iyer, founder of the social impact consulting firm Space2Grow. Iyer had talked of how her daughter, studying at Vedantu, had to face a profane comment in the chat. “That’s how I connected with Chitra. She explained the importance of child safety in an online environment and what all [the lack of] it could manifest into, including trafficking,” Jain recalled.“We dug into data, and checked all the conversations that happened during the teaching/learning process. There was a realisation that safety comes first for any family, for every child, before anything else. We started investing deeply in it, and made Chitra a core partner in the process.”
Iyer’s firm, Space2Grow, specialises in child safety trainings. With its help, soon Vedantu was making students aware about what child safety means, teaching parents what a safe environment for kids translates to in an online ecosystem, and training its teachers. The platform created avenues for children to reportany trouble,set up redressal mechanisms, and put counsellors in place.In accordance with the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act and the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, a child safety policy was formulated.
The result was that more children started reporting if they faced any abuse or bullying. In keeping with the gravity of the problem, each student has the option of reporting abuse the minute it happens using the support button available during class, the help chat feature on the website, or through the teacher dashboard. After the child safety team reviews the report, more information is collected within a day, the recommended solution is discussed with everyone involved, and finalised within the week.
The training on digital security also covers Vedantu’s teachers. As a faculty member at Vedantu, Prachi Bahuguna was used to looking out for her students but once she had to face online abuse herself. However, she felt duly supported by the organisation: “The response was very prompt. I was made aware of my rights, and things were sorted quickly.” Another teacher, Aarshdeep, agreed with their being merit in including teachers in the training sessions: “The more awareness we have, the more we can share with our students.” These sessions, which also addressed parents, were facilitated by a range of experts, from child psychologists to the officials of the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR).
The aim of such workshops is not just to discuss online safety but to increase overall sensitivity amongst teachers and students so they interact with each other with compassion and understanding. For example, when Jain found a teacher making a callous statement about the LGBTQIA community, he took it as a sign to organise a training on the subject.
Part of this instructional and precautionary approach is empathetically telling children the consequences of online harassment, including legal action. The technological aspect of the solution involves checks like a profanity filter, which weeds out cuss words, nudity and obscenity in real time before someone can post a comment in the chat. Of course, the feature comes with the usual limitations technology has. It is not fool proof but is being improved upon.
Identity protection is an important part of Vedantu’s safety policy. The photographs and contact details of students and teachers are not revealed. Students cannot directly message each other either. Disallowing direct interaction or WhatsApp groups also has an impact on business as a limited connection leads to less engagement. But the company took that informed decision in the interest of child safety. As it is, the platform’s powers get truncated wherever they are using a third-party app, like YouTube, for their classes. So it becomes all the more important to focus on preventing any kind of abuse on their own platform.
If someone manages to bypass these measures and still ends up being abusive, the child’s family is taken into confidence. This part can be tricky because a parent’s first reaction is often denial. When presented with evidence, they start inching towards acceptance. In such instances, said Jain, Vedantu’s stance is more corrective than punitive to the extent possible: “We don’t sit parents and kids down and bash them. First we talk to parents, involve the counsellor, and take a call on when to include the child in the conversation. We have done extensive counselling sessions for both sides, the abuser as well as the affected party.”
Of course, technology does not automatically change sexist mindsets. Sridhar R, an internal member of the Child Safety Steering Committee at Vedantu, said, “Sometimes parents try to justify the act. A student was sending pornographic images to a girl, and the boy’s parents said it was because the girl gave him a ‘friendly signal’.” This gap between children and their parents’ understanding of them is also something Priyank Kanoongo, the NCPCR chair, recognised: “Parents need to be better informed about their children.” Expressing concern over minors having social media accounts, he talked of how he has been pushing for school safety manuals to include cyber safety as well.
To fill in the gaps in knowledge of government institutions around cyber safety, Vedantu and Space2Grow work closely with them because improving safety norms within one organisation is not enough. Both Iyer and Jain stated that child safety has not been a priority for the edtech industry. In Jain’s words, “It is like health. People do not focus on it till something is wrong. The first challenge for the industry is to recognise the lack of online child safety as a problem.” In the government space, it is also to do with the absence of regulation, shared Iyer: “All challenges go back to regulation. The IT Act focuses on OTT but what about edtech platforms?”
Author Ankita Anand is a Delhi based Journalist and an Editor with Unbias the News