The use of social media is proliferating at an unthinkable speed in an age where young people actively choose to learn and connect virtually over connecting physically. With the world now at their finger-tips, young people now choose to consume a variety of information through social media, so much so that a virtual universe could soon become reality. The internet is a double-edged sword; as it continues to grow in its ambitions, so do its dangers and so does the need for better regulation, standards and infrastructure. As such, the burden will be on social media companies self-regulate, at a time when legislators and regulators are barely understanding the expanse of the use of social media and lags far behind when it comes to prioritizing digital security.
Sri Lanka’s use of the internet
There were 11.34 million internet users in Sri Lanka as of January 2022. While 38.1 percent of the total population uses Facebook, 31% of the population uses YouTube and 7.2% of the population uses Instagram, TikTok is fast establishing a presence in the Sri Lanka with over 900,000 users as of June 2021 and a growing user base of over 500,000 daily users.
The internet’s veil of anonymity
With the advent of social media has also emerged a convenient veil of anonymity through which on could engage on media platforms and in recent times, digital media has been used to incite many a violent act as in the physical world. This is phenomenon is explained in a study by American psychologist Philip Zimbardo. He suggests that when anonymous, individuals lose their sense of individual identity, known as deindividuation, and hypothesised that people would be more likely to engage in violent or aggressive activities when their identity was hidden, as they would experience deindividuation and believe they would not be held accountable for their actions. As such, there are many cases of the use of Fake IDs, pseudonyms and unverified user-accounts that enable people on the internet to mask their identities and engage in cyber-bullying and online harassment.
Cyber-bullying and Online Gender Based Violence (GBV)
As much as the internet’s advances have proven advantageous to humankind, it is a double edged sword, especially for women, with more than a third of women worldwide experiencing abuse online, rising to almost half for younger women. In Sri Lanka, online GBV is the second biggest form of gender-based violence. A senior expert in the field relates that out of the women subjected to GBV, a majority of the complaints are related to young women being harassed by their partners through means of manipulation using online content provided voluntarily or involuntarily, while some complaints cited the use of “catfishing” on social networking services, especially among girls between the age of 14 – 18 years.
Therefore, while it is important to create awareness and improve digital literacy to prevent women from falling prey, it is important to understand the changing patterns of GBV, taking into account the growth of technology, in adopting adept and creative solutions to the problem. While the advancement of technology has enabled us to connect and share important information, it has also provided additional fertile grounds for gender-based violence against women and girls to an alarming extent, and with little accountability.
Self-regulation by social media companies
In light of the above dangers and harsh statistics, leading social media companies pledged to committed to overhauling their moderation systems to tackle the abuse of women on their platforms, in line with their commitment to the global forum for gender equality convened by UN Women in Paris. Among them, TikTok, titled the most downloaded app in 2022, is taking active measures to ensure the safety of its young female users. The role parents have to play in allowing their child the freedom to explore, while being aware of the dangers of children being exposed to predators and unwanted content is pivotal to securing the wellbeing of the child. The family pairing option on TikTok allows parents and young teens to customize their safety settings based on individual needs, where parents can link their personal TikTok account to their teen’s and set controls.
The parents being able to set a daily screen time quota will help the child maintain healthy boundaries, while being able to restrict your young, impressionable teenager’s exposure to content that may not be appropriate or suitable for them in addition to the being able to whether your teen can search for content, people, hashtags, or sounds, will avert the dangers of scenarios such as “catfishing”.
Privacy has also been an issue of contention as teenagers have been sharing more information about themselves on social media sites than they did in the past. The new features allowing parents to regulate whether or not their teenager’s account is public or private is crucial, until the child is old enough to be able to understand the importance of regulating access to private information posted and not be peer pressured into interacting for fear of missing out on cultural and social trends. Furthermore, direct messages are not accessible to children below the age of 16 and parents or guardians have the option restricting who can send messages to their teen, and like and comment on their content – all important measures in to protect young teenagers from predatory direct messaging and online harassment.
The background of internet usage rates reaching great heights and young teenagers using the platforms multiplying at an unthinkable rate, the veil of anonymity on social media furthering violence, the frightening statistics on violence against young girls online and the lack of regulation to keep up with the ever-changing sphere of social media, it is crucial that social media companies who generate revenue off their users take steps to avert the dangers social media could present to child users, without stifling their voice or creativity, in an age where young voices, especially young female voices need to remain loud and impact the world.
(The writer is an Attorney-at-Law and aspiring policy maker for the Monaragala District. She also serves as a Director at the Yeheliya Foundation – a charitable organization that has been relentlessly working to create a safe space and equal platform for young girls and women from different walks of life.)