On August 12, 2017, when 15-year-old Ankan Dey from West Bengal was declared the first victim of the Blue Whale Challenge in India—in which participants have to complete a series of challenges, with suicide as the last one—the country woke up to the enormity of cyber threats and its softest victims: children and young adults. Over the last few years, India’s relationship with online apps, and the all-access that these social platforms allow people, especially the young ones, has seen a steep growth. Statistics portal Statista reports around 326 million social network users in India in 2018, with YouTube, Facebook and WhatsApp leading the pack.
And then there’s the problem child on the block: TikTok.
In 2018, the Chinese mobile video-streaming app reportedly had 500 million global active users. In India alone, statistics dated December 2018 show a download blitz of around 32.3 million, according to statistics portal Sensor Tower. Which is why it’s not surprising that the Indian lawmakers have been actively taking note of the nature of the application, which allows its reportedly 25 million daily active Indian users (as of February 2019) to create and share short videos anytime, anywhere. And it’s now asking for the Indian government to step up. Fast.
On Wednesday, the Madras High Court passed an interim order to ban TikTok for “encouraging pornography,” saying, “Majority of the teens are playing pranks, gaffing around with duet videos sharing with split screen to the strangers. The children who use the said application are vulnerable and may expose them to sexual predators …. Without understanding the dangers involved in these kinds of mobile apps, it is unfortunate that our children are testing with these apps.”
The Indian government has been directed to prohibit downloading of the app; the media is prohibited from telecasting the videos made on the app; and to enact a law, like the United State’s Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, which protects Indian children from becoming cyber/online victims.
The app taps into the bustling Indian fascination with the film industry, with most users memeing, dancing and lip-syncing to popular music or dialogues. Most users have been reported to be “scantily clad” and “suggestive”, which, in February this year, led the Information Technology minister of Tamil Nadu, M Manikandan, to call the content “unbearable” and leading to “cultural degradation”. (Interestingly, one of the most popular tags on TikTok are for political videos, with #narendramodi garnering more than 30 million views and #rahulgandhi with nearly 13 million hits, according to a Reuters report.)
The petition to ban TikTok has been brewing in the Indian legal system for a few months now, citing cases of pornography, child abuse and suicides. While the order has been passed at the behest of a petition filed by a lawyer-cum-social activist Muthu Kumar, a few more (albeit less coherent) petitions have been doing the rounds on the internet as well. One of them blames the app for the “cringe experienced by the people watching such horrendous posts” and that the “amount of posts generated daily is increasing resulting in death of brain cells. People with no creativity are getting famous because of the upcoming generation is looking up to these people and are not using their strengths in the right direction.” Yet another one wants a ban on the platform for “creating a menace for Normal citizens of India. Many people are wasting their time doing stupid videos.”
In fact, the Swadeshi Jagran Manch—the economic wing of the right-wing Hindu outfit, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)—piled up on the demand on the ban for the pure reason that the Indian government must not let the “enemy state” of China and its companies use India for “their economic gain” and that “We should not allow Chinese companies to capture Indian user data without any restrictions and monitoring.”
In the state of Tamil Nadu, especially, the drive to ban TikTok has been an active campaign. There have been reports of a flesh trade racket that used morphed photos of women from TikTok to lure customers. In the state’s city of Salem, there were complaints from parents about pictures of school girls on TikTok being morphed with erotic content and being circulated. In one case, a youth pretending to commit suicide on the app ended up slitting his wrist and dying. In yet another, a 24-year-old committed suicide after being bullied on the app for dressing up as a woman. In December last year, a counsellor at a health helpline service reportedly received 36 distress calls from children and adults across Tamil Nadu who have been bullied, harassed or are addicted.
Echoing the incidents that have come to light, the Madras High Court further said, “Nobody can be pranked or shocked or being made as a subject of mockery by any third party and it would amount to violation of the privacy. It is said that Tik Tok App, is mostly played by the teenagers and young people and it has proved to be an addictive one. By becoming addicted to Tik Tok App., and similar Apps., or cyber games, the future of the youngsters and mindset of the children are spoiled.“
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