Zaira Wasim played the younger Geeta Phogat in Dangal – India’s highest grossing film ever – but what’s truly made her a familiar name on prime-time news debates and the front pages of national dailies is an apology she wrote on Facebook and later deleted.
Zaira did not make it clear from her post what she was exactly apologising for, but said it was for meeting certain people and for what had happened over the past six months (hinting at her recent meeting with Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Mehbooba Mufti and acting in Dangal, respectively).
She went on to say that her actions were not deliberate and that she wasn’t proud of what she was doing. She also sought forgiveness from “people” and urged everyone to stop promoting her as a role model for the Kashmiri youth.
That a 16-year-old was forced to apologise for doing things that cannot be perceived as mistakes by any conceivable yardstick screams volumes about the people we are and our threshold for tolerance. It also brings to fore an issue that’s being neglected in this entire controversy — the susceptibility of teenagers (famous or not) to cyberbullying and internet trolls, and the lasting damage they can cause.
Zaira certainly didn’t want her Facebook post to turn into a story of national importance. But unwittingly, she did fuel it. Could she, all of 16, have handled the situation better when even adult celebrities most often fail (remember Arijit Singh’s open apology to Salman Khan)?
Keeping a distance
Experts say a lot can be done to effectively avoid getting embroiled into the social-media snare, and their most earnest plea to teenagers is to have an open and honest communication with the adults they trust and feel are responsible. Geetanjali Kumar, a Delhi-based consulting psychologist, suggests other ways that teens and adults can keep in mind to prevent being bullied online:
* Make sure you have a confidant who is considerably older than you.
* Always remember that everything you upload in the virtual space never really goes away, even if you delete it. Even if it’s just on Snapchat. It takes only a second to take a screenshot and then use it later, as is happening in Zaira’s case — despite being deleted, her Facebook post is being widely circulated on the social media, adding to the hype. So be very mindful of everything you post online.
* Share your fears and insecurities with the people you know for real.
* Critically evaluate your self-worth and self-esteem according to your understanding of yourself and not other people’s perception of you.
* Know that social media is a public space. Learn to differentiate between personal, private and social, and respect it. Also know the difference between an acquaintance and a friend. A classmate’s cousin who you met only once at a party does not qualify as a friend, warns Kumar.
* Develop strong interpersonal skills so that you have a rewarding life outside of the virtual world.
If you are being bullied
None of us ever ask for it but we invariably do find ourselves in situations we are unequipped to tackle. Sukhmeen Kaur Cheema, vice-principal and counsellor at The Indian School, New Delhi, and Jitendra Nagpal, head of the department of the Institute of Mental Health at Moolchand Hospital, New Delhi, suggest what can be done to keep a check on online bullying.
* Confrontation is not always the right way to tackle a bully because we most often cannot predict their reaction. Do not act or react on impulse if you think you are being bullied. Step away from the situation and think before you do anything. Zaira’s case is proof enough for this. She could have never predicted that her one post could snowball into a major political debate.
* Don’t be scared and don’t hide your suffering. Know that your parents are there for help. So are friends and cyber cells. Reach out to them.
* Be assertive and defiant when necessary. Learn to say no.
* Parents and schools need to be aware and vigilant about the long-term hazards of online bullying and take them seriously. Build channels of communication with children/students. Let them know that you are always there for them.
The author tweets @sneha_bengani
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