How to run away from home and India: Missing teenager leads police to chat rooms

Police in Thane stumbled on teenagers discussing online how to run away from home, how to get shelter and food on the road and how to get on board ships leaving India

Representative Image (Photo Courtesy: IANS)
Representative Image (Photo Courtesy: IANS)

Gautam S Mengle

A 13-year-old boy from Thane has been missing since Sunday afternoon. The parents discovered, hours after his disappearance, that he was part of an online discussion forum, where running away from home was discussed in great detail. According to police, the teenager lived with working parents and was often alone at home.

On Sunday afternoon, the boy walked out of the house, after declaring that he would be back in a year’s time. The parents took it lightly and thought it was a joke. When he failed to return till late at night, they launched a frantic search and informed the police.

One of the friends of the boy, also in his early teens, informed them about the chats. “They were both part of a Discord server room called Runaway And Get A Life, where teenagers discussed ways to run away from home in great detail. While the friend received an invite to the server room by mistake and joined out of curiosity, the missing boy was an active participant,” a relative of the missing teen told this reporter.

Discord is an online interaction website and app, which users can download to hang out with the chosen few and create spaces, called server rooms, to discuss different subjects. One can join a Discord server room only if an existing member sends them a link with an invitation.

Screenshots of the Runaway And Get A Life server room accessed by National Herald indicate that the missing teen was making plans to run away for quite some time. He was in touch with another teenager from Tirupati in Andhra Pradesh, as well as others based abroad.

They discussed staying at orphanages that take in runaways, travelling to Goa and finding criminal elements who could smuggle them on board cruise ships out of India in exchange for a price. The conversations also speak about mental health issues and intention of harming themselves.

Discussion forums on platforms like Reddit and Discord have been popular in the US for a long time. Scores of teenagers, mostly those living in abusive households, discuss and advise others on running away from home, share tips for surviving on the streets and post helpline numbers that runaway teens can call, in case they are having second thoughts and want to go back home. The trend seems to be catching up with lonely teenagers in middle class homes in India.

The case was transferred on Monday to the Cyber Crime Cell, Thane for investigation. But the police concede that their knowledge about Discord and its functioning is still hazy. After years of dogged efforts, law enforcement agencies in India have working relationships with platforms like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to enable quick sharing of information in criminal investigations. Other platforms, like Discord, are still not under the radar.

Cyber-psychologist Nirali Bhatia said that while the knee-jerk reaction would be to call for a ban on the app and the platform, it is not the solution. “Discord is just a platform used by scores of teenagers who use it to learn a new language together and in similar educational pursuits,” she points out.

“The real requirement is for parents to be involved with their children in a way that they truly understand the children’s nature. Parents need to treat their children as individuals which will lead to better and more harmonious relationships at home,” she said.

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