Aditya, a 13-year-old based in Mumbai, India, whose name has been changed for privacy reasons, told his parents that he would be going away from them for at least a year. They thought he was kidding. He wasn’t.
“His family had recently shifted to Mumbai,” an investigating officer on the case told VICE World News, on the condition that we don’t name him, the children and their families since the investigation is still underway. “When he actually didn’t come [home] that night, his parents got worried and reached out to us at the Badlapur police station.”
The officer proceeded to check local CCTV footage but nothing came up. When his team started asking Aditya’s friends questions, it was revealed that the boy may have left clues in a Discord chatroom.
“One of his friends told us that he'd even received a link to this Discord chatroom but never joined it,” said the officer. “When we entered the chatroom with his link, we read the messages and figured that Aditya had actually run away.”
The Discord chatroom had three members between the ages of 13 and 18. All of them were motivated by a single goal — they wanted to run away from their families and start a new life elsewhere – particularly the popular Indian tourist destination and beach city Goa.
“The group had become their support system,” added the officer. “They would share how they’re upset after an argument with their parents or an altercation at school. And they would console each other.”
Aditya and the other chatroom members left Mumbai and headed to Goa on October 30. They stayed online while on the road, enabling investigators to locate them.
The investigating team eventually tracked down Aditya’s IP address as he kept texting his mother on Instagram throughout his journey to Goa. “In the group, they were searching for orphanages in Goa to stay and work from.”
On reaching Goa, Aditya and his friends attempted to check in to the Mango Tree orphanage in the Calangute area of Goa. “But they were not admitted because the orphanage people guessed that there was something suspicious about them. They then ended up checking into an expensive hotel and the bill ran into the thousands of rupees.”
The investigating officer revealed that the Discord chats showed that they chose Goa as their destination under the assumption that it would be cheaper than Mumbai. But they ran out of money on the first day.
Discord, a free platform, is popular among teens and is often reported to be a breeding ground for bullying, racist memes and unsupervised violent games. Jehanzeb Baldiwala, a child therapist based in Mumbai, acknowledges these platforms help in connecting teens with others facing similar life problems. However, the risks can be high.
“The case of Aditya and his friends is a classic example of adventurous adolescent behaviour,” she said. “At this age, you believe everything is attainable, but you don’t have any practical ways of achieving it.”
Baldiwala hopes that cases like this will prompt parents to be more in tune with their children. “Parents can’t afford to brush away whatever kids say as childish. We need to pay close attention to what they are saying, their dreams, and their fears. If they are lonely, we need to talk to them calmly and reach a collaborative understanding of what can be done.”
Baldiwala observes that parents often end up making the mistake of believing that their adolescent children don’t need them anymore and that the support they get from friends suffices. “That’s dangerous. Your children always need you. You might not kiss them every day as you used to when they were toddlers, but you need to devise newer ways of showing your affection and presence.”
According to the officer, the chatroom members were lonely. “Because their parents were so busy working, they had no one to turn to but these virtual friends on Discord. They always wanted to come back to their parents, but their hope was that they would make their parents proud by taking the reins of their life in their hands and only returning home after they were successful enough.”
When the investigating officer and his team finally located the kids with help from the local Goa police, they seemed dazed and displayed signs of confusion. “They would have returned back to their parents even if we hadn’t found them because they had run out of money and realised the impracticality of their plans.”
Aditya and his friends have since returned to their parents, who welcomed them teary-eyed. Meanwhile, the investigating officer on the case is also probing for any possible connections with child trafficking and drug abuse. So far, no such links have been found.
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