Children are born pure. Their emotional, social and societal values are framed by the things that they perceive. Their upbringing and supervision, or lack of it are of prime importance, against the backdrop of susceptibility to criminal behaviour.
It is imperative for lawmakers to deliberate on what makes an environment unfavourable to raising a child. What pushes a child to step into an arena hitherto regarded as the ‘criminal space’? Secondly, does he have an obligation towards society to contribute to the overall well-being of the state? Or does the state have an obligation to ensure that the child is cognitively aware so that he can contribute to society?
This article reviews the literature of social media acting as a breeding ground for Juvenile offenders. This article will cover descriptive research methods and surveys, which will highlight the fact that social media has acted as a catalyst in opening floodgates of opportunities for Juveniles to commit crimes in the real world.
Further, this article will highlight the type of content that may have a negative impact on juveniles. Lastly, this article will talk about possible solutions that may make the current legislations more stringent, in order to restrain possible juvenile delinquencies.
Social Media- Rampant in a child’s life
Social media platforms can be found in all realms and walks of our lives. Children have unbridled access to these platforms and internet connection, which gives them ample contact with the social networking sites; not to mention the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, where children were forced to pivot to the online world.
Parents were behoved to provide their children with electronic gadgets and an internet connection to enable a hassle-free education. This unrestrained and unhindered access to social media has the scope for information risks in the country (and the world) amongst the children.
What is Information Risk?
Information risks are those that arise when a kid is exposed to undesirable and unsuitable content such as sexual, pornographic, violently disturbing pictures, unsuitable advertising, and the promotion of unhealthy and hazardous behaviours such as self-harm and homicide. Information risk further triggers two types of risks:-
- Correspondence hazards- which may include hazardous communications involving the child in question
- Conduct risks- This is the final conduct that might be triggered; where the child is encouraged to meddle in violent behaviour, sexual motives or generating/storing illegal material online.
Behavioural repercussions vis-à-vis social media
The UNICEF, in its State of the World’s Children Report (2017)– came forward and highlighted a holistic view of children’s interactions with the media, and emphasized the dangers which children may encounter in the digital environment (for example- cyberbullying, child abuse, Dark web).
Moreover, child psychologists and academicians have been expressing their concerns on the impact of social media on children, stating that children who witness specific behaviour (such as aggressive behaviour) are likely to engage in the same aggressive behaviour immediately. They have observed that exposure to violent media content “triggers” crime and aggression.
Many experimental studies have also indicated that social media exposure is significantly related to antisocial behaviour in children.
It would be judicious for the author to exemplify this hypothesis. In India, the Ministry of Electronics & Information Technology issued a recommendation that the Blue Whale game should be banned, for its content touched the constituents of Section 306 of the Indian Penal Code i.e. encouraging suicide amongst children.
Generally, the portrayals of illicit acts on social media are not held as “motivation” for unintentional criminal activity- however, in the present case, there was a direct incitement to commit suicide. Moreover, in 2014, two teen girls stabbed a 12-year-old nineteen times- after getting inspired by a meme “Slenderman”.
According to the Criminal Complaint, the teen girls pushed the 12-year-old down, and took multiple stabs, in the hopes of seeing ‘Slender’ (the meme), and being assured that he exists.
Rotter’s Expectancy theory
It is evident that there exists a correlation between the amount of time spent on social media and the behavioural psychology of juveniles. The rationale of this co-relation can be explained through the Rotter’s theory.
Rotter’s Expectancy Theory states that a person’s performance depends on the expectation that behaving in a particular way will result in a given outcome. Practical application of this theory to Criminal Law indicates that people engage in criminal activities because they expect to gain something from it in the form of status, power, money, etc.
If the juvenile is under the impression that by his acts, he may actually gain status, power, or money- then it might result in high expectancies, which in turn shall lead to reinforcement. Given that social media has become inseparable from juveniles- such platforms have the ability to inspire youth over time.
These platforms not only inspire them to commit crimes but also provide tempting avenues to them to perpetrate a crime on social media platforms.
A simple solution to this would be to break the sustainability of Criminal behaviour, by reducing the juvenile’s potential expectancy of gain. Therefore it is expedient to ban content that incites violence and criminal activities amongst youngsters. However, this has its own set of challenges:
- Censorship of content on social media will go against the freedom of speech- under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution of India.
- Completely banning social media will deprive other sections of the society to enjoy a factor of awareness that is provided by these platforms.
Section 67- Not adequate to identify sensitive content
Section 67A of the Information Technology Act (hereinafter as “The Act”) provides punishment for transmitting or publishing obscene or sensitive digital content containing sexually explicit acts. This content ranges from images to videos, including self-clicked images.
The punishment laid down under this section is imprisonment for a term which may extend up to five years, and a fine which may extend up to Rs. 10 lacs. on first conviction. Furthermore, Section 67B punishes exploitation, child pornography or child grooming [inserted vide IT (Amendment) Act, 2008], and prescribes a punishment of imprisonment, which may extend to five years, and a fine which may extend up to Rs. 10 lacs.
For the purposes of this sub-section, it is expedient to analyse the ambit of the term ‘sensitive content’, from the point of view of juvenile delinquency. The Section lays down the fact that the users are held liable for transmitting or publishing the sensitive content, however, apart from the obscene and sexually explicit acts, the term ‘sensitive content’ fails to cover the content that has the capacity to negatively impact the juveniles.
It becomes extremely difficult to identify such content, for that content may have a negative impact on one vulnerable juvenile, but it may have no effect on another. However, it is possible to identify content from a statistical and research point of view, which has a certain observational-learning aspect (i.e. the Juveniles may acquire ways of doing something by watching others).
It is possible to narrow down the content which may result in a contagion effect (or the copycat effect)- where juveniles tend to mimic the aggressive activity portrayed on social media.
This has become significantly important, since social media violence may influence children strongly, for they are open to learning- and a long-term exposure can lead to the juveniles developing a positive attitude towards violent behaviour.
Section 79- Attaching liability to Social Media Intermediaries
It is also important to highlight the safe harbour protection that is accorded to the Social Media Intermediaries under Section 79 of the Act. It accords to them the protection from liabilities that could arise out of any legal action that has been initiated on the basis of user-generated content.
In this respect, how far can one go in making the social media intermediary liable for criminal acts that have been committed by juveniles after getting inspired by sensitive digital content? A social media intermediary has the means (by publishing the sensitive content) to remotely facilitate and influence the juveniles.
Therefore it is only fair that they are subjected to a certain amount of liability, which then brings Section 79 of the Act in question. The complete safe blanket that is provided under this Section needs a certain amount of amendment, to include liabilities that are related to juvenile offences.
This will only act as a precedent for all social media intermediaries to monitor and keep a track of content that is exposed to juveniles. As mentioned earlier, although it is extremely difficult to identify the type of content that may prove to have a negative impact on juveniles, it becomes important for the social media intermediary to widen the scope of their operational rules and code of conduct.
Conclusion and possible solutions
A comprehensive analysis of this debate would highlight that banning content on social media is a far fetched approach since it violates fundamental rights. However, a streamlined intervention of content that is in touch with juveniles is necessary, since it harbours possible perpetrators.
Academicians and scholars have long been debating this segment; moreover, it is even scientifically proven that social media content is now directly correlated to the behavioural psychology of juveniles. Therefore, it becomes the duty of social media intermediaries to widen the scope of their monitoring, and the terms and conditions that revolve around the publication of content online.
In this regard, attaching a particular amount of liability to the social media intermediary becomes important in order to underline the magnitude of effect that their content has on vulnerable juveniles.
The impact of social media on youngsters’ lives is reason enough for amending the current legislations. Amending Section 67 to widen the definition of ‘sensitive digital content’ is necessary to highlight the ill effects of content that sets-off vulnerable juveniles.
Talking about amendment of Section 79, it is important for the lawmakers to open discussions with child psychologists, academicians and researchers to identify the type of content that might have long term and negative effects on juveniles, before any kind of liability is attached to the social media intermediary under this section.
Identifying a particular type or class of content that triggers the aggressive segment of the brain of juveniles is necessary so that additional clauses can be added in sub-section (3) of Section 79 (i.e. exceptions to Section 79 of the Act). It will then become a fundamental aspect of the intermediaries to regulate the ‘sensitive content’ online, especially the ones that are in contact with juveniles.
An overall amendment to Sections 67 and 79 of the Act is necessary, for it has critical implications for criminal justice and policymaking in the country. A radical approach to this debate (i.e. acknowledging the fact that social media affects and influences juveniles, to monitoring the data that is exposed to them) is the need of the hour, which may be undertaken by the psychologists and the lawmakers of the country.
By Mriganc Mishra, 5th Year B.A. LL.B. (Hons.), Faculty of Law, The Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda, Vadodara