Yesterday, we brought you the third part in a series that explores the dynamics of interpersonal relationships with the advent of online social networking. Today, Abhishek Mande speaks to a parent whose young daughter was taken advantage of by people she added on as 'friends' to her account. Illustration: Uttam Ghosh
Bindi Mehra* likes to describe herself as a 'chilled out mom'. At 48, the people this single mother bonds with best are at least 20 years younger to her. And while Mehra looks everything like a mother 'should', she says that on most occasions she's closer to her children's generation than her own. While she and her son bond well, with her adopted daughter things have been very different.
Last year has been nothing short of hell for Mehra. Most of her time had been spent making trips to her daughter's psychologist, her school counsellor and the police station. And it all started when the young one logged on to an innocuous-sounding website called Facebook.
Bindi Mehra tells her story:
Vidya*, my daughter must have been a little over 12 years old when she got herself a Facebook account. It started off as harmless chatting and adding people she was friends with. But before I knew it, Vidya was adding people she had never met.
I used to monitor her account from time to time, whenever I got the chance, and two years later, random names I hadn't heard of suddenly started popping up on the screen. Meanwhile, I also began to notice that money from my wallet was constantly disappearing. Initially I thought it was my carelessness. When it became a regular phenomenon, I got suspicious.
To keep track of Vidya's online activities, I created a Facebook account for myself too. I sent her a friend request she never approved, insisting that there was a virus on the site. It was after much persuasion that I actually became part of her contacts. Some of the names on her list were alien to me. But two names in that list were soon to make my life a living hell.
Of them, one was Ashutosh Sinha*, a small-time DJ and an engineering student who, at 18 years of age, was an adult and four years older than Vidya. I could never figure out how he found my daughter's profile but I knew that they had met at least a couple of times, if not more. It made me uncomfortable. But there was more to come.
My daughter would be in front of the computer screen for hours, then on the phone chatting with him. All attempts to get her off the phone/PC were proving futile.
One day I received a call from my ex-husband. He told me that she had dropped by at his place and asked him for Rs 5,000, which he refused. Accidentally (and fortunately) she had also left behind a SIM card that got him curious. He inserted the card into his cellphone and discovered messages from someone she knew in Goa and had run out of cash. Looking at the message history, we realised that Ashutosh had been hounding my daughter for money for over two days.
Now I knew where my money was disappearing to and I confronted Vidya. She insisted that he was nothing more than a friend. But the idea of asking a 14-year-old for such a huge sum of money put me off him. A long series of arguments, shouting and cursing followed. She had been seeing a psychologist (to cope with a minor learning disability) who has helped her quite a bit in the past. But during this phase, nothing the psychologist said or did was helping.
The unpleasantness at home continued; soon, months had passed since she was exposed. But there was no repentance or a desire to change. Money would keep disappearing mysteriously and arguments and bitter fights would follow. I was at my wits' end.
To add to the complications, I then found out that the SIM she had forgotten at her father's place was not the one I had given her!
This is where Ramesh Chauhan* came into the picture. Ramesh, 16, was also Vidya's Facebook friend. Although I never did find out how the two connected, they were always talking to each other for hours on the phone. The calls would be made in the middle of the night and would go on till the wee hours of the morning.
Since Ramesh didn't want to spend money, he had encouraged Vidya to buy SIM cards on my name, using my driver's license. She had secured about half a dozen cards that way and the one my ex-husband discovered was only one of them. During this time, my phone and Internet bills had doubled. I was paying over Rs 8,000 per month and there was no stopping.
I knew I had to get these people out of my daughter's life. It took just a couple of warning calls to Ramesh to have him cut off contact with her, but it would be awhile before Ashutosh was out of the picture. By now it had been almost a year since this saga started. I had begun to really tire of it. The constant fights and cursing had taken its toll on me. I had to seek psychiatric help too. Worse, for the first time in 14 years, I had taken to beating my child. I was merciless and she was unrepentant. This was a regular scene at my house all through that one year -- money would disappear; I would confront her; she would lie; I would expose her; she would curse; I would beat her; her cursing would not stop.
Meanwhile, Ashutosh had been playing on her insecurities. He had convinced her that her brother was showered with all the affection, since he was my biological son and she was an adopted child. Vidya had become a completely different person. She was not the child I had adopted and seen growing up before my eyes. My biggest fear was that one day she'd come back home either pregnant or with AIDS. There were times I wanted to kill her and myself and put an end to our suffering. There were times I regretted having adopted her. But she was my daughter and I had to look after her.
Finally, I decided to go to the police. A lady inspector at the station sat me down and heard me out. She was the one who showed me the larger picture. I learned that there is a circle of boys in the age group of 18 and 21 who befriend young girls on Facebook so that they can influence and extract money from them. Ashutosh was one such boy. He'd posed as someone much younger than he really was and used my daughter to make money for himself.
And he was very bold. Despite my speaking to him on the phone and telling him to stop contacting Vidya, he refused to cower down. In fact, when the lady inspector telephoned him from the station, he tried back-answering her. When he was ordered to show up at the police station, he turned up with his father and a lawyer. The inspector warned the boy of dire consequences. It is illegal to take money off a minor and the boy was over 18, which meant he could simply be jailed. After a lot of threatening, he was put in his place. This was more than a year after he had met my daughter. He was told not to get in touch with her and avoid all her advances and calls.
To this day I have the SIM card containing the messages in which he asked my daughter for money. It is evidence; even though the stealing has stopped, there is always fear lurking at the back of my head.
My daughter and I are connected on Facebook but I also have a fake account through which I keep track of all the people on her list. Ashutosh and Ramesh are no longer on it.
I continue to keep track of my money. Every fortnight, I check her mobile phone bills and any calls made at unearthly hours are questioned. It is over for now, but I can never be entirely sure.
Tips for FB parents:
1. Understand the dangers of Facebook. You don't want your child having a cigarette at 12 or a drink at 13. FB, under special circumstances can be equally, if not more dangerous. Children must be taught to use it under supervision.
2. Do not allow them to put up their contact details.
3. Ensure they do not put up their schedules -- like where they are at what time.
4. Do not allow them to send invites or accept strangers' friendship requests.
5. Watch out for changes in mood/behaviour. If these changes are drastic, in all probability an external influence is at work.
6. Insist they add their parents, siblings or older cousins. That way kids have to exhibit a degree of restraint.
7. Get tech savvy.
8. Always have one ID under a pseudonym. Your son's girlfriend or your daughter's boyfriend may have blocked you. In that case having another ID helps.
9. Keep track of whom they chat the most with. Verify that it is a known person.
10. Don't give in to blackmail. Your job is to be a watchman. Someday they will be grateful to you, even if that day seems far away for now.
*Names changed upon request.
Do you have any social networking anecdotes to share? They could be funny, grim or simply bitter-sweet. Tell us all about them. Write in to firstname.lastname@example.org (subject line: 'My Facebook story') and we will publish the best ones right here!