Online classes have proved to be a boon. However, it comes at a price. Students and teachers alike are facing the brunt of it — harassment during online classes. Has going online become a synonym to being out of line, asks MUSBA HASHMI
Your child is taking his regular online classes with not less than 40 other students and right in the middle of it, an inappropriate video gets played. The teacher somehow manages to stop it and remove the responsible ID from the session. Just when everyone thought they are out of that uncomfortable situation, a random person joins in again and plays another such video. What is one supposed to do and who is to be blamed if it has been done via a fake ID?
These incidents are not unusual with online education becoming the only way to save a child’s future during the pandemic. In pursuit of a digital India, such incidents, time and again, prove that we need a robust cybersecurity system. With that being said, the question remains how one can join such meetings?
Ehraz Ahmed, a 24-year-old Mysore-based ethical hacker and security researcher, tells you that there are two types of instances being reported today. First, wherein an uninvited person joins an online class via Zoom or Google Meet and creates disturbance.
“These two platforms are safe and secure. Here the only way to join is via an invite code or link. The possibility is that students themselves have been sharing these links provided by their teacher to a third party. Hence, all the chaos,” Ahmed says.
The only way, he says, to avoid such incidents from happening is that teachers should enable the restricted meeting mode, which means, only the people allowed by the teacher will be able to join the meeting.
“Apart from that, teachers can also ask students to join with their original names and not of their parents or with nicknames. This will ensure that only genuine students are granted entry into the class. The second option is to link the student’s email IDs with the online classes. This way, only the student’s whose IDs are registered will be directly allowed entry in a meeting,” Ahmed explains.
He emphasises that to be on the safer side and eliminate any slight chance of an unpleasant event happening in the classes, teachers should always take attendance before beginning the session. “This will take only 10 minutes. But, can save the rest of the class from any unwanted entity or harassment,” Ahmed says.
The second instance, he says, is when colleges or universities use a third-party app for conducting exams, tests or even classes. This is where things become tricky.
“Here, the chances of hackers entering private meeting rooms increase manifold. The safety of such apps, softwares or sites is under question. A hacker or a malicious entity, by detecting vulnerabilities, can mine the data from the back end and login to these meetings. Also, if it is not through back end loop holes or security flaws, it can be because the login ID and password of such meetings is highly guessable,” Ahmed opines.
Not only that, in such cases, the hackers can also steal the students’ sensitive information like mobile number, email address and date of birth. “The only thing to do here is to secure such sessions with strong passwords. Also, it is advisable that any third-party app should be used only if it is from a trusted source. Otherwise, in the absence of the Data Protection Bill, a lot of private information can be leaked out easily,” Ahmed points out. The Data Protection Bill will safeguard the user data and pose penalties in case of any misuse of data.
Er Ashutosh Verma, Cyber Security Analyst and Founder, Exalta India, tells you that during the pandemic, online education has been of great help to the children, but some people have been using it to harass others in various ways and means. These cases need to be dealt with care, as they have a long-lasting and bad impact on the mental well-being of children, he says.
“It’s a no-brainer that over-dependence on technology can significantly impact students’ lives. While we need technology to survive in a modern social world, a severe over-reliance or an addiction to certain facets of technology use can also be socially devastating. Tech dependence can lead to teen consequences that span from mild annoyance when away from technology to feelings of isolation, extreme anxiety and depression. This can further lead them to take to cybercrimes. Parents today mostly share their own personal ID with children for online classes which must not be done. As due to lack of awareness or by mistake children tend to click on unrecognised links which might have Trojan horses which further make way for cyber harassment,” Verma says.
However, it is not only the students who are falling prey to harassment during online classes, the ordeal of the teachers is no different.
“It’s been more than a year since we have been taking online classes. There have been a couple of instances wherein students anonymously have created a lot of disturbance during the online sessions. Sometimes, a random person with a fake name joins in and plays songs in between the class, while the other times they spam the chat by mocking the teachers or students or cracking random jokes. This is heartbreaking and embarrassing. We become so helpless because there is not much we can do,” says a distressed teacher.
Faking names or maintaining anonymity and letting out frustrations on teachers also seems to have become a part of these online classes.
“There have been cases where students login to online classes with fake names and trouble their teachers. It is nothing but an example of their frustration in life. They find it safe to hide behind their screens and vent their frustrations out on their teachers, which they otherwise wouldn’t have been able to do in physical classrooms,” Pulkit Sharma, a clinical psychologist, tells you.
He points out that while some do it out of frustration, others do it for fun. “Youngsters these days have almost forgotten the difference between good and bad. When you ask a youngster about ‘why he troubles his teacher’, his answer would be simple: ‘For fun’. Morals and values have all gone for a toss. And with online being the new normal, the ugly-minded find it safe to do whatever they can under the sun,” Sharma says.
This is not all. Some even do it to kill boredom. “Some students also do this because boredom, isolation and confinement has taken its toll on them, turning them aggressive. Such students need counseling, empathic listening and emotional support,” he says.
It is, therefore, imperative that both students and teachers should now be taught the ethics of online classes.
“The wise use of the Internet is the least taught subject. We can’t wait for the Government to come up with laws for everything. It is our duty to educate our youngsters about the right and wrong and how online harassment is cybercrime. The discipline in the class has to be maintained and so the dignity of both teachers and students. We shouldn’t use it as a tool to let out our frustrations or dislike towards a person,” Sharma explains.
Pooja Sareen, advocate and Women and Child Rights Activist, highlights one such case of online harassment. “Lately, I happened to overhear an online session, conducted by a psychologist, and I was actually shocked to discover the turbulence in children’s lives during the lockdown times. One said, ‘Ma’am, I miss interaction with friends, I feel bored’. Other one said, ‘It’s so good you thought of these online sessions, I had been undergoing strange depression’. All of a sudden, an intruder played an obscene song, for a minute, all were zapped, surprised as to who he was, then one student giggled and all of them began laughing,” Sareen says.
The surprising fact, she says, was that instead of getting angry students enjoyed it. “This was indeed weird that rather than getting angry all were having a gala time. One of the guys said, ‘Sun dost, kuch aur chala na, mazedar’. This guy on the other side, he felt encouraged, one by one the item numbers were played and as a result the psychologist logged off. A couple of other girls too did,” Sareen tells you.
This was not the end of the session. The obscenity continued. “Every five minutes, the songs kept turning from bad to worse. I thought about leaving the session, but then I heard that voice say, ‘Okay guys, let me connect with you on WhatsApp, we will rock’. He left his number on the screen with a message saying: Agar latest hot scenes dekhne hain, call Pankaj on… Most of them, I am sure, would have saved his number. Later on, it was found out that it was an online payment scam. All those who paid for cheap thrills, had suffered online theft,” Sareen tells you.
This, Sareen says, calls for new guidelines on online classes. “There has been a growing demand for new guidelines on online classes following recent sexual harassment cases lodged against faculty members of a couple of schools in several States. Advisory committees in every school, a central compliance cell and a self-audit tool are among the measures that have been laid down in the guidelines issued by the Tamil Nadu Government on June 5, 2021 to ensure protection to students from sexual harassment while attending online classes. The rules will be applicable for all schools across the State. Like Tamil Nadu, all the States should set such guidelines, to prevent harassment caused to teachers and students alike,” Sareen says.
Ankur Raheja, Cyber Lawyer, says that while there are no specific laws to govern the online classes, serious matters can be reported under the Information Technology Act, 2000 read with Indian Penal Code.
“Usually, the school tries to deal with such matters internally. The setting up of guidelines for online classes will definitely help students and teachers too. Even if, after the implementation of guidelines, such harassment continues during classes, it can be dealt with as cybercrime under the IT Act,” Raheja says.