-By Yana Gupta and Ayush Mangal
Social Media may either act as a bane or a boon for society and individuals. However, sometimes its cost outweighs its benefits, especially for juveniles. The access to electronic gadgets for long durations has opened floodgates of opportunities for juveniles to get inspired from the content on social media and express themselves in ways that may constitute crimes on social networking sites or in the real world. These issues become crucial subjects of discussion especially in times of a pandemic that has behooved the parents to provide their children with electronic devices and secure internet connection to enable hassle-free education.
Social Media – A Source of Inspiration for Juvenile Offenders
Exposure to criminal acts may “trigger” crime and aggression, or it may influence the style of doing the crime. In the state of Punjab, A 16-year-old boy bludgeons his grandmother to death after getting inspiration from the TV crime serials. In 2014, the two teen girls, inspired by a meme “Slenderman”, stabbed their friend nineteen times. There have been instances where similar kinds of crimes were committed in the past by juveniles. Many experimental studies indicate that social media exposure is significantly related to antisocial behavior in children.
Juveniles’ violent behavior can be characterized by observational learning or modelling which primarily means that an individual may acquire ways of doing something by watching others. Media violence may influence children more strongly because they are open to learning and, exposure can lead to the long-term effects i.e., developing a positive attitude towards violent behavior.
Aggressive social media may also result in a contagion effect. In contagion effect or copycat effect, Juveniles tend to mimic the aggressive activity portrayed in the media, video games, and television programs, etc. Examining the juvenile offenders involved in school shootings suggested that fascination with firearms, bombs, and explosives was a common theme. In April 1999, 13 persons were murdered at Columbine High School in Colorado and both teen perpetrators were fascinated by violent video games, especially the video game Doom that had even been adopted by Marine Corps in 1998 to train their soldiers. Violent video games train children as to how to use the weapons and harden them emotionally to the act of murder, resulting in violent acts.
The juveniles, who got inspired by TV serials or by social media to commit crimes can be punished or rehabilitate under the relevant provisions of law. The question arises that whether the violent social media, through which juveniles got inspired, can be held accountable for the crimes committed? For instance, in India, the Ministry of Electronics & Information technology issued an advisory that Blue Whale Game is abetment to suicide under Section 306 of the Indian Penal Code as it encouraged suicide among children. Here, there was a direct incitement to commit suicide but this does not hold true for most of the portrayals of illicit acts on social media which unintentionally lead people to engage in criminal activity. We have to look at plausible solutions to stop the long-term effects of exposure to media violence.
The very radical idea, that strikes a common man, is to ban such content. However, it has two pitfalls. First, censorship goes against the freedom of speech, which is a fundamental right under the Indian constitution, and second, completely banning social media will deprive us of the benefits of it as first and foremost it acts as a tool of awareness. Further, it may be difficult to get rid of such content because it is humanly impossible to identify what may instigate the young minds to commit crimes. For instance, research suggests that violent shows that have the most deleterious effects on children are not always the ones that adults perceive as most violent. There is still a possibility of a detrimental effect on adolescents even if the content that is commonly perceived to be a cause of juvenile delinquency is banned.
Thus, it becomes crystal clear that banning violent content may not bring required changes. However, if we look at the other way round, it is apparent that juveniles can acquire criminal behavior through observational learning but, the sustainability of that behavior depends on its reinforcement. Rotter’s expectancy theory states that a person’s performance depends on the expectation that behaving in a particular way will lead to a given outcome. Application of this theory to Criminal law suggests that people engage in unlawful conduct because they expect to gain something from it in the form of status, power, money, etc. If the person actually attains any of these from his unlawful conduct, then it may result in high expectancies which in turn will lead to reinforcement. On the other hand, low expectancies mean a person believes that his behavior will not result in reinforcement. The purpose here is to break the sustainability of criminal behavior by reducing the juvenile’s potential expectancy of gain. It may come from the outside environment or from within itself over time. However, these theories need to be applied practically to ensure that exposure to social media does not lead to criminal behavior in Juveniles in the long term.
Social Media – A Dais for Juvenile Delinquency
Social Media has become an inextricable part of the lives of adolescents in today’s world. Such internet-based applications not only inspire them to commit crimes but also provide tempting avenues to the youth to perpetrate crimes on various social media platforms.
There are several factors that have contributed towards social media platforms becoming a veritable bedlam of juvenile delinquency. The cited statistics show that adolescents spend considerable time on social networking sites and there is no doubt that this duration has got only enhanced with all the children locked up in their houses due to the pandemic. Presently, nuclear families form the highest percentage of households in India and therefore, the children are naturally inclined to feel isolated and they end up killing hours on social media for entertainment, chatting with their friends, sharing content, etc. Many a time, parents are simply unaware of what their kids are doing in their rooms and a wide communication gap may exist between the parents and their children. Taking into consideration the above-listed factors and how emotionally vulnerable adolescents are, social networking sites come in handy to these youngsters to vent out their pent-up sadness, anger, and frustration in the form of unconscionable crimes.
Teens sharing nudes, indulging in sexting that is sharing or posting sexually suggestive images, and sharing other pornographic content have become commonplace. In May 2020, a private chat group, “Bois Locker Room” hit the headlines when an Instagram user leaked chats from the group where members were found sharing objectionable pictures of underage girls, objectifying them, and planning “gang rapes”. This was a harrowing incident of Cyber Pornography on a social media platform popular among youngsters. The Information Technology Act, 2000 and the Indian Penal Code, 1860 contains provisions providing protection against this act and in addition to this, the POSCO (Amendment) Act, 2019 has defined child pornography and enhanced the punishment for its possession and distribution.
As harmless as they may seem, social media challenges have proved to lure vulnerable juveniles into life-threatening situations. For instance, the Momo Challenge, an internet hoax through which children were being enticed to perform a series of self-harming acts including suicide, and the Kiki Challenge under which the participant has to step out of a moving car, perform the dance and jump back into the car while it is moving, that led to a series of casualties in various cities of India.
Cyberbullying is another devil that we have to not only protect our juveniles from but also prevent them from perpetrating it. Due to the relative anonymity of the online environment, teenagers find cyberbullying as a safer alternative to bullying in-person and innumerable reasons, ranging from settling personal grudges to deriving pleasure from tormenting others, may be responsible for such tendencies among adolescents. Body-shaming or mocking a person’s physical appearance is a conventional form of bullying especially on social media websites on which teenagers spend hours scrolling through pictures of a variety of models. Such an act not only has harrowing psychological and emotional effects on the victim but also reeks of a petty mentality among children at a very tender age.
Apart from this, Digital piracy, which refers to the illegal act of downloading or sharing a digital work without the permission of the copyright holder, has emerged as a rather common online offence committed by juveniles. In 2015, the anti-piracy wing of Kerala police arrested three youngsters for uploading a copy of a Malayalam movie on the net. Lack of knowledge about illegality and consequences of indulging in digital piracy, normalisation of piracy among teens, lack of money to procure content legally, and the unchecked environment provided by the social media platforms to freely share pirated files are some of the reasons that explain the ubiquitous nature of this cybercrime.
One of the most judicious solutions can be educating the youth about the legal status of the various crimes mentioned above because unawareness about the consequences of their untoward acts on social media is one of the prime reasons behind juveniles committing such crimes blatantly. At this age, parents play an indispensable role in the life of an adolescent. Parents should not only keep a regular watch on the online activities of their children but also provide emotional support to help them cope up with the vagaries of teenage. Educational institutes should strive towards creating a safe environment for adolescents to express themselves and aid normalization of gender differences and variability in physical appearances. Curiosity is a characteristic of adolescence but society has to satiate it through education and encourage the youth to employ it towards self-improvement and to become better individuals.
It can be rightly concluded that the free flow of ideas and easily accessible content on social media platforms may instigate adolescents to engage themselves in crimes in the real world. In addition to this, a number of factors and instances cited above prove that social networking sites act as platforms for adolescents to commit various illegal acts. This may jeopardize the future of our youth and put them behind bars at an age when they grow and develop into valuable assets for our nation. It is the need of the hour that we understand the intolerable future consequences of exposure to social media content and protect the adolescents from falling into this dangerous zone.
[The authors are second year B.A. LL. B. students at NLU, Jodhpur]