Our role in building a safe online space

Following the ‘Bois locker room’ conversation that went viral on social media, Aditi, a 16-year-old girl, decided to write on Instagram about the bullying and harassment that her best friend has been facing in school, and what she thought the school should do to stop such harassment. Even though she did not name her friend or her harassers, to Aditi’s disbelief and horror, her classmates flooded her post with comments to take the post down, calling her and her friend liars because she had not named the people involved. They accused her of trying to get attention. Aditi was upset and lost, she didn’t know what to do. She only meant to share her friend’s experiences to show that such things happened in her school too.

What was worse, Aditi’s friend stopped speaking to her; she had not responded to the post or her messages. Aditi was worried that her friend was angry with her because she had not told her friend that she was posting about her experiences online. Aditi did not know whom to confide in about her worries. She took the post down that night. What she believed was a safe space to start a conversation about creating change, was tormenting her instead. It had made her a public ridicule and possibly lose a valued friendship.

Experiences like Aditi’s are not new or unique. You may have heard of similar incidents too. The Internet and social media are exciting and wonderful because they help us have fun, learn, connect with new people and enjoy with our friends. At the same time, they are also spaces where people may feel judged for what they do or say. Much of what happens on the Internet and social media is public and can be easily accessed by others who are online. And things that we say online remain there unless we voluntarily remove them, and even if not, can almost always be saved through a screenshot. That puts a lot of
responsibility in our hands to be mindful of what we say. Imagine seeing a hurtful comment someone wrote to you over and over again – it might make you feel hurt, embarrassed or angry every time you see it!

The other thing about online spaces is that it also helps us be anonymous. While this is great to share a lot of things safely without being targeted, unfortunately online bullies may use it to mock or hurt someone without ever facing consequences.

OUR ROLE IN BUILDING A SAFE ONLINE SPACE

This could make us vulnerable, adding to difficulties we may already be facing due to low self-esteem, problems within the family and/or at school, or difficulties with friends.

If we want the Internet to be safe for all of us to enjoy, we must remember that an online space is very similar to the physical spaces in which we live. We know that bullying, calling names, and being
disrespectful are not acceptable in the real world. So why should the online world be any different?

We all have a role to play in keeping online spaces safe and welcoming for all. Here are four simple ways in which we can do this:

Getting consent: To obtain consent is to seek permission from someone for something to happen, be it offline or online. For instance, if you want to post a picture of your friend on Instagram, have you considered whether they will feel comfortable with the photo being posted? You wouldn’t know unless you asked, right? Also, consent given for one thing does not automatically extend to other things. If your friend consents to having one of their photos uploaded on Instagram, it does not necessarily mean that they are comfortable with you sharing other photos as well. Aditi, in the story in the beginning, didn’t ask her friend’s consent for sharing her story, and she is going to have to speak to her to regain her trust now! Consent is important every step of the way.

Respecting others’ opinions: In school and at home, we learn why values like respect and diversity are important. Learning these values also means understanding that often, others will
have different opinions, and that is okay, as long as that opinion is not judgmental, abusive or disrespectful. That reflects online too! Even in a situation where we do not agree with someone, can we share our opinions politely, without shaming or being rude to the other person? After all, aren’t we all always sure that our opinion is the “correct” one?

OUR ROLE IN BUILDING A SAFE ONLINE SPACE

Creating a non-judgmental space: Don’t we often not say something because we’re wondering how the other person will judge us for it? For instance, your friend may not say ‘no’ out loud about his experiences being shared online, because he’s worried he may be judged as not being brave enough. Or we might agree that what someone is wearing is funny, because everyone else seems to think so and they will make fun of us if we don’t agree! It takes time to build an environment where friends feel comfortable saying something without being judged, but it is very important to do that both offline and online, be it on a social media group or a WhatsApp group.

Not using offensive language: It seems funny and harmless to put words online, especially if one is anonymous. But how would you feel if somebody called you an “idiot” for scoring less in English? These kinds of words hurt, even if they are said online and by someone anonymous. Words that make fun of people for how they look or behave, like “chhakka”, “slut”, “homo” or “sissy”, are disrespectful, and can make the online space very hurtful for them.

As you can see, some small steps can help us make the online world safe and inclusive for all of us. We all have a right to be online without being bullied, ridiculed or harassed for our opinions and actions. Wouldn’t you agree that the world is nicer when we are more accepting and empathetic towards each other?

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