Cyber-Safe and Cyber-Positive Teens in Bangladesh
September 1, 2021
Rehana (not her real name) was full of hopes and aspirations when she won admission to a high school just 20km from her village home in Bangladesh. It was her father, defying the opposition of her conservative family, who made it possible for Rehana, an excellent student since childhood, to continue her studies after grade 10. She dreamed of becoming a doctor.
In high school, Rehana met a boy and fell in love. One day, as they were sitting together on campus after class, the boy put his arm around her shoulder and took a selfie. With her conservative upbringing, Rehana was surprised by the gesture, but she also felt happy.
But the happy days didn’t last. Rehana discovered another side of her boyfriend’s personality, and she broke off their relationship. The boy was furious, and began sharing the photo of Rehana on Facebook, even recruiting friends to help embarrass her and make the picture go viral. Eventually, the picture came to the attention of her family. Her father, feeling dishonored, forced Rehana into marriage with a man much older than herself at the age of 17. A single photo of an apparently innocent moment, spread on the internet, had shattered all her dreams.
This is not a fictional tale. It is a true story shared by the victim herself during an in-depth interview with the Centre for Critical and Qualitative Studies (CQS) of the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh (ULAB). And there are countless others like her, young men and women who are naïve about the dangers of cyberspace, who fall prey to traps like the one that snared Rehana, losing their money, their dignity, and too often their dreams and aspirations for a better life.
Countless young men and women fall prey to traps like Rehana, losing their money, their dignity, and too often their dreams and aspirations for a better life.
Due to the rapid advance of information and communication technology and the growing availability of affordable internet service, hundreds of thousands of teens from all corners of Bangladesh are launching themselves into cyberspace unprepared for the dangers awaiting them in that alluring, unexplored world. The coronavirus pandemic supercharged this trend, as lockdowns and the fear of infection made online learning and engagement increasingly indispensable. According to the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission, the number of internet users in Bangladesh increased by 18.1 million from January 2020, just before the pandemic, to May 2021. A large proportion of them are presumably teens who have newly acquired internet access for academic purposes. But while they may come for study, they stay on to do much more.
The question now is how ready these teens are, particularly those from peripheral, rural areas, to face the hazards of the online world. Digital media literacy and online safety are hardly addressed in existing textbooks, and not all parents and teachers have the knowledge themselves to fill this gap. Current programs to cultivate this awareness are more or less confined to urban college students. Many teens in rural and semi-urban areas remain unsupervised and uninstructed.
In a new initiative, Being Safe, Being Cyberpositive, funded by the U.S. State Department’s South Asia Governance Fund and administered by The Asia Foundation, the Center for Critical and Qualitative Studies of ULAB has tried to understand the internet-use patterns of teens who live outside the urban centers of Bangladesh. The study employed a questionnaire-based survey to collect data from 298 individuals aged 13 to 19 at five study sites. A qualitative component of the study included interviews, focus group discussions (FGDs), and “netnographic” observation (netnography is a form of ethnography that examines online cultures and life). The CQS team interviewed a total of 25 participants, held FGDs with 15 different groups, and made netnographic observations at three sites: Bhairab, Barisal, and Satkhira.
Based on the findings of this baseline survey, the project team developed a strategic intervention and is now working with the teens who participated, using online workshops due to the restrictions on personal interaction during the pandemic. Contrary to the prevailing impulse to simply restrict youthful internet use, this project encourages participants to use the internet in healthier and safer ways, as the baseline research provides ample evidence that restrictions do not work; they just create a barrier of silence between teens and their parents and teachers.
The underlying philosophy is to adopt a cyberpositive approach that is respectful of and responsive to teenagers’ needs and wishes. Unlike parents who try to police their teenagers’ internet use and impose drastic cutoffs to protect them, this approach respects teenagers’ sense of privacy and identity. It’s a nonintrusive model that doesn’t poke into private online behavior but encourages participants to protect themselves by being more reflective, critical, and vigilant. The cyberpositive approach will enhance the culture of sharing and will help teens overcome or avoid negative cyber experiences. It is believed that this participatory, rewards-based model will have a lasting positive impact.
In a worrisome finding from the above-mentioned baseline survey, more than 70 percent of teenagers reported that they had either experienced or been exposed to cyber-stalking, bullying, or blackmail online, while around 75 percent said they or their seniors or peers had sent or been asked to send explicit messages, photos, or videos online. Only a few of them, however, ranging from 7 to 35 percent, say they are willing to seek help from law enforcement, police cybercrime units, or dedicated apps, helplines, or websites, reinforcing the observation that a restrictive model to combat cyber-bullying and harassment will not work. So, it is high time that we take steps, both within and outside of the academic curriculum, to equip our teens to safely navigate the treacherous online environment.
The Being Safe, Being Cyberpositive participants will now work with mentors to make sense of the new ideas presented in the workshops and their own experiences and aspirations through their preferred means of expression—blogging, art, photography, video, etc.—a final, creative stage of the learning process, as suggested by Benjamin Bloom’s widely influential Taxonomy of Educational Objectives. It is hoped that the participants, through this process of analysis and creative synthesis, will become safer and more critical online citizens and will in turn become agents of change for others.
The authors are from the Center for Critical and Qualitative Studies (CQS) and the Department of Media Studies and Journalism (MSJ) of the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh (ULAB). They can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, not those of The Asia Foundation.
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