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What had started with computers has now infiltrated into cellphones. Mobile technology, in turn, has acquired the power to make and break lives. ANANYA BORGOHAIN studies the latest trends in apps that have taken humanity to a new low

While it has been widely debated for centuries if the future would be led by machines and the humans would be their oppressed subjects, it has now started to seem that the probability is already an actuality to a large extent. Dissemination of information and channels for communication have undergone an unbelievably dramatic metamorphosis since the beginning of the Internet in the last century.

 For the millennial generation, the emergence of social media has been nothing less than the discovery of a portal to paradise, albeit a cyber paradise. The change has been drastic. What started with computers has now infiltrated into cellphones. Mobile technology, in turn, has acquired the power to make and break lives. Attaining knowledge, developing interpersonal relationships, searching for jobs, expressing one’s opinions, et al have been made so convenient by the Internet and social networking channels. Even life partners are now found online! From applying for one’s college admission, passport or citizenship, to actually issuing death threats or delivering hate speech, hardly anything is now impossible on the Internet.

It started with harmless fun; making new friends, reconnecting with long lost ones, expressing oneself to the world and so on. UCLA’s brain mappers concluded a year ago that when teenagers’ who share their photos on Facebook, Instagram etc get ‘likes’ from their followers, their brains respond in the same way as they would when they saw their loved ones or won money. So far so good. Until, of course, one day when we woke up to the news of a 17-year-old boy in Mumbai killing himself as a task assigned to him in an online game. Now, how did we get there?

Social media is a double-edged sword. It ruptures psyches and obliterates relationships as easily as it can reunite people or bestow confidence upon a user. It is neither white nor black; it’s a complete grey package on its own. Unfortunately, the statistics have gravitated towards the darker shades of late.

There was an app named Secret that shut down in 2015. Secret was designed for iOS and Android users and enabled them to share messages anonymously in their circle. Anonymous apps like this, as well as PostSecret and Yik Yak, existed earlier too. It was not until this month that this tradition of sharing anonymous messages has created such a furore for the human race. It all started with the app called Sarahah. The Arabic word for openness issarahah; the website by the same name was designed by Zain al-Abidin Tawfiq, a Saudi Arabian developer. It was meant for employees to give feedback to their employers. Last month, when its English version was launched, it became one of the most downloaded apps. Its website claims, “Sarahah helps you in discovering your strengths and areas for improvement by receiving honest feedback from your employees and your friends in a private manner.”

If only it could be that perfect. While most users have shared messages praising them, it soon escalated to messages of abuse and threats. Anita says, “When I started using the app, I was flooded with the finest of compliments. Of course, I shared them online. I did not find anything wrong with it. Soon I realised that they were being sent by my closest friends with the hope that I can also return the favour, and in turn, they could also post on Facebook!” Arif, on the other hand, was not so lucky. He says, “I got all kinds of messages at first; some praises, queries, statements. It would be boring at times too. Suddenly, there were abuses and slurs.

They called me all sorts of names. It was so disconcerting that I uninstalled the app soon.”

Sarahah demonstrates the urge for people to be liked by others. In the app, a user validates the opinions of other people. Opinions that are not asked for and by people who do not reveal their own identities. These opinions are then also shared on their social media by the receivers. First, the urge to hurl abuses at a person because he/she won’t be able to identify the sender, and second, the decision of the receiver of these messages to share what they are being called with the whole world project a picture of us that is desperate. This desperation is of to be seen, heard and remembered. The tendency of sharing what is in one’s inbox displays heightened narcissism. While some say the app can be productive if someone sends a refined message that is politely written, many have shared their senders usually write only sexual messages. This is tantamount to cyberbullying.

A leading Indian magazine had quoted noted psychiatrist Samir Parikh as saying, “Technological advancements have made aspects of our life easier, made information and people more easily accessible. But, it has also aggravated a kind of social alienation, relative deprivation, stress and poor lifestyle choices.” At present, Sarahah is said to have more than 62 million users. Creator and CNN Tech had reported that Sarahah is immensely popular among young users as teens post Sarahah messages on Snapchat as well.

The report quoted Tawfiq, who said, “I told myself in November, ‘You’ll be satisfied with 1,000 messages’ and then I’ll call it a success,” he said. “But now, we’re getting close — day by day — to one billion messages sent.” But it remains to be seen how far an app can go when it gives cyberbullying such a great opportunity.

Cyberbullying, on the other hand, reached an unfathomable and irreparable low when reports of teenagers killing themselves as part of an online game started doing the rounds. Blue Whale is a game on the Internet that allegedly revolves around a range of tasks assigned to players by administrators. It goes on for 50 days. The final task requires the player to commit suicide. The name of the game is derived from the phenomenon of beached whales, which is linked to suicide.

Blue Whale began in Russia in 2013 with “F57”; a name of what is called a “death group” of the VKontakte social network. It is believed to have caused its first casualty in 2015. Philipp Budeikin, a former psychology student, had claimed to be the creator of the game. Budeikin — who was expelled from his university — said the objective of his game was to “clean” the society by compelling those people to commit suicide who he decided had no value for existence.

This game of death has found its way to India now. A 16-year-old boy at Thiruvananthapuram in Kerala committed suicide last month. Police believe that he took this step after playing Blue Whale. The mother of the boy told the media that her son had deleted all the games from his cellphone before killing himself. She also said that he had admitted to her that he plays the Blue Whale game as well. She said he used to go to cemeteries at night or to the beach alone. He also drew on his wrist using a compass and volunteered to donate his organs after death. His mother pleaded with him a lot against playing the game but all her cries fell on deaf ears.

Two other such Indian players were luckier. On August 10, a Class VII student of Indore in Madhya Pradesh climbed to the third floor of the Chameli Devi Public School to jump off, as the final task of the game. He was pulled away by a group of students who saw him. The boy allegedly had recorded all the 50 stages of the game in his school diary.

Similarly, on the same day, another 14-year-old boy was rescued by the Maharashtra Police. It was believed that he had been playing the fatal game and suddenly went missing. When his parents reported this to the police, it was discovered that he was playing the game. The cops intercepted the bus in which he was travelling to Pune from Solapur and found him. Interestingly, apart from friends and families of these players, there is no official concrete proof that this game exists. While some claim that the user needs to install an app to play the game, some say that it can be played through Facebook or Instagram as well.

A leading daily quoted psychiatrist Sameer Malhotra as saying, “For them, the external environment becomes a source of inspiration, which is why they are willing to do anything to prove/justify/live up to a certain image... People in such situations and with such vulnerable behavioural patterns often lose control, resulting in self harm.” Apparently, those that want to leave the game midway are threatened with harm to them and their loved ones.

Reliance on technology is not just denying us self-dependence but is making us shallower with each passing day. If killing oneself because the Internet said so is an extreme, what has already become the new normal is the tradition of finding a life partner online. Dating and matrimonial sites are so common that they are not even worth debating anymore. Tinder was launched in 2013 and it took the market by storm. While or have been available for a long time, people are still embarrassed to admit that it is where they met their partners. It is, after all, the technosexual era. However, most of the times, these apps are just used for people to hook up or have a fling. Tinder, for example, is a breeding ground for cyber attacks and meaningless flings. Flings are alright if they are consensual.

However, a study by the American Psychological Association says that Tinder users suffer from self-esteem issues. Their level of confidence is lower than those who do not use the dating app. The users are also said to be fixated on their bodies and appearances. This is influenced by the accepted societal standards of beauty and is reflected all the more on various social media platforms.

For Indians, the matrimonial sites often insist that they want fair and good looking people with attractive physical features. Sandhya says, “I once had my profile on a matrimonial site and got the weirdest calls from people. Once an elderly person called me up and asked if I could cook because he was looking for a bride for his son. I hung up saying that if his son was not mature enough to make a call himself and his father expects his cook to also be his wife, they are not a family to associate with!” Kabir recalls a similar experience with Grindr. He reveals, “I am gay and Grindr is the Tinder for homosexuals. I found a really good match once on Grindr and we connected. We met up for coffee. The guy came, ordered his food, ate and left. He later blocked me too. Looks like all he wanted was a free meal!”

Technology was supposed to convenience us. It was a boon that eliminated manual labour so that our work could get done soon and we could have leisurely time to spend with loved ones, in solitude or even with nature. But now it seems that it is pushing us to moral decadence, everyday mismanagement, and even death. If a mobile app could obliterate us, how far has the human race actually come?

*Some names have been changed




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