More and more children have smartphones these days (16 percent of fourth to sixth graders, 21.3 percent of junior high school students, and 51.1 percent of high school students, according to a 2013 survey by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications). There is also a growing number of children who chat with friends through text messages using a social media application called Line (an Internet-based communication tool). Without a doubt, social networking services like Line are very convenient and socially beneficial tools for communication. However, social media create new worries and problems in the realm of human relations.
Line is now a familiar tool for even elementary school students. You can use it to instantly keep in touch with your friends. It is an extremely convenient tool, allowing users to exchange private messages with groups of friends with ease. However, the provider of the service does not monitor exchanges among users (due to the stipulation in the Telecommunications Business Act that telecommunications businesses “shall not infringe on the privacy of communications” (see Mainichi Shimbun, March 31, 2014, Tokyo morning edition)). As a result, users are not kept in check, regardless of how inappropriate the exchanges become. This feature of “freedom from outside observation” carries the danger of making it psychologically easier to use words like “annoying,” “disgusting,” and even “die!” In fact, forms of bullying in which a particular target is barraged with harsh words like these, or a disliked member is excluded from a group, are becoming common practice in Line. While it has come to be valued as a useful tool, Line has also become an ideal place for bullying due to inappropriate use. Adults need to face up to the fact that many children are taking advantage of Line’s closed-off nature to secretly engage in relentless, nasty bullying.
Although not being bullied, there are many children who stay on Line late into the night out of an extreme fear of being branded as someone who ignores messages (called kidoku surū in Japan). When a child is ridiculed for ignoring messages, (s)he may be excluded from a Line group and retaliated by being shunned or other methods. Sadly, children feverishly message back and forth on Line to avoid this fate.
It is an undeniably bizarre situation. The children may not realize it, but Line is manipulating them like puppets on strings, and they are suffering as a result of this system.
What should concerned adults do in these circumstances? We need to seriously find a drastic measure for our children: consider banning the use of Line after appropriate consultation. We should seriously consider banning Line for elementary school students, for example, at the school, municipality, district, and other levels. Incidentally, the city of Taka in Hyogo prefecture announced that it would carry out a citywide campaign from July onward urging the public to refrain from using Line and other free call and messaging apps for smartphones after 9 pm (Mainichi Shimbun, June 19 (Thurs.) 9:08 pm). This is a courageous, welcome move.
When bans are proposed, people immediately come back with the counterargument that what is most important is lecturing the children on the appropriate use of the tool—not a ban. However, we adults need to confront and fully acknowledge the precarious reality children experience today—a reality that cannot be talked of with such complacency. Since appropriate checks (interventions) are not guaranteed, the argument for prioritizing Line’s utility cannot be endorsed. Preventing imminent bullying and protecting children is our top priority. The social trend to prioritize economic efficiency over children’s physical and mental safety should not be left unchecked.
How would a ban be effective? It could directly distance children from Line, depriving them of opportunities to bully each other. In addition, it would reduce the number of children who stay on Line late into the night out of a fear of being ridiculed for ignoring messages.
Moreover, children who didn’t use Line could be regarded as those on the “right track” as an indirect effect. For example, if there were a ban at school, parents could cite it as the reason for directly banning their children from using Line at home. When children were put on the spot by their friends for not using Line, they could also cite the ban as a logical reason for their choice, making it easier to rebuff such demands.
At present, without a ban, we cannot take a strong stance against the use of Line. Thus, children have no choice but to join it, even when they are reluctant to do so. They are then burdened with the risk of being bullied as well as the possibility of becoming a bully.