Do you know where your kids are?

What seemed to be an essentially American problem some decades ago is now a glaring Indian reality. It was in the 1980s that this writer heard the phrase that preceded Fox television channel’s 10 O’Clock News every night: “It’s 10 p.m. Do you know where your children are?”

What a country! Here parents need to be reminded about minding their children! This was the smug thought that cropped up in my mind more than once. We don’t have any thing like this in India; our society is so different… How wrong I was!

Call it the effect of globalisation or the expansion of the global village, the ills attributed to Western – read more urbanised societies – are now evident in India too. Of course, the impetus for penning down this piece comes from the recent news of the kidnapping and subsequent murder of a Mumbai teenager, Adnan Patrawala.

There has been much speculation that he and his murderers met though the social networking site called Orkut, though a report has denied it. There is, however, no doubt that Adnan was a member of Orkut. He describes himself in his profile as “wrds cant describe me but i m always coool wht more?”

Orkut had over six crore and 84 lakh members at the time of writing this article. They are connected with each other through the Internet. Orkut is only one such site, its rivals include Facebook and Myspace. At this time there are over a hundred communities (member groups) on Orkut that pay homage to him and discuss the case.

Social networking sites work because of the need among users to connect with friends and family, to find like-minded people, and share their pictures, videos, information about their passions. When we see Adnan’s profile, his communities included Quit Softdrink and others woven around the brand icons that fascinate teenagers: Sony Ericsson K850i, Levis Jeans @ India, Provogue, Davidoff Cool Water perfume, Starbucks Lovers and Skoda Laura Awesome Car.

When you are a member of a community, you meet others and form friendships. In fact, if there is one thing the Web is good at, it is allowing people to establish superficial relationships and such sites have the potential of vastly increasing the reach and exposure of the user.

In this very potential lies a pitfall. As German philosopher Immanuel Kant famously said: the only thing that is good without qualification is good will. In fact, in the absence of good will, anything can be, and sometimes is, abused. Social networking sites have come in for extensive criticism because from time to time they host hate groups, perverted people and paedophiles and become forums intimately linked with criminal acts.

Adnan made online friends, some of whom may have had a hand in his kidnapping and killing. Do we blame the website for the crime? No. We can’t. While it facilitated the interaction between the individuals, how they acted is their responsibility.

All too often youngsters tend to get overly fascinated by the lure of the Internet, and also the virtual communities that it has spawned. Let’s be frank, it is a very powerful and alluring attraction and many parents too proudly say that their children are “doing computers” when all they are doing is online chatting.

This, like many such activities, is not good or bad in itself, but it can be a waste of time. A recent study by SurfControl, an internet security company, said that Australian workers who kept a close watch on their Facebook profile page while at work were costing their employers up to US $4 billion a year.

When we were young, our parents insisted that we bring our friends home from time to time. This allowed them to build a rapport with our friends and vice versa. Today’s parents often lack time to spend with their children. They feel guilty and thus give the children unbridled access to the Internet, among other things. This is when the situation gets out of hand.

As a long-time Internet user, when asked, I have often suggested that children should surf the Internet in a common area of the house. No closed doors should be allowed. Children who know that their parents can see what they are doing will behave better, online as well as offline.

Unfortunately, parents often don’t know what their children are doing. This is especially true of the rich urban middle class that seems to have time for everything else but their children. What happens? You have youngsters with guns killing girls, or mowing down people with their parents’ BMWs.

Today, thousands of Indian are being forced to confront the reality that they really don’t know where their children are – not only geographically, but more importantly, where they stand, what their activities are and what kind of friends they have.

Fox is a channel owned by media magnate Rupert Murdock, as is STAR TV in India. As yet, STAR News does not open with the credo: “Do you know where your children are?” Are we neglecting our duties towards our children and contributing to a society where it might soon need to do so? We might well be, unless we refocus our priorities and make it our business to keep a watchful eye on our children and their activities.