Thursday, June 8, 2023

The curious case of child coders and WhiteHat Jr


The Indian parents’ passion for ‘producing’ child prodigy has found a new way through the edtech firm WhiteHat Jr, making little coders at 6-years.

In the ’90s parents used to send their kids to the cricket coaching centres, a trend fueled by India’s first World Cup win in 1983 and eventually when the sport became the unsaid national religion of India. It was really interesting to see how a whole generation was being pushed to become the next Sachin Tendulkar, Saurav Ganguly, or Rahul Dravid. Morning used to start with those heavy kitbags stuffed with the bat, helmet, gloves, pads, etc.

Then came the era of the Abacus, a popular mental development tool. The theory behind the race to learn Abacus was that learning it at a young age helps to activate the brains of young children. However, it puts pressure on the little minds as well. Not many talked about that though.

Sometime later, once the smartphone started becoming affordable in India, we found kids glued to them, instead of gully cricket or football matches. The childhood started dissolving in the phone screens. That began in the first decade of this millennium and in the decade that ended in 2020, we started witnessing another rat race of parents to make child prodigies in a new way; coding.

As it appears, parents are probably trying to make their kids the next Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Ada Lovelace, Steve Wozniak, Grace Hopper, Elon Musk, or Mark Zuckerberg. The parents are basically running a rat race to make their kids coders at the age of 6! That is an interesting evolution, just like the gentleman’s game evolved from Tests to T20s.

Fuelling this phenomenon is an edtech startup WhiteHat Jr, owned by Byju’s. Just a few years ago, it was like a hidden tiger in the startup jungle and suddenly started making headlines off late. WhiteHat Jr is claimed to be offering artificial intelligence (AI) courses to children aged between 6-14 years. It also claims to empower children to make them creators, frontline inventors of the new world.

To make people believe it, the edtech startup has roped in a national team cricketer and a Bollywood star who played a character in one of his movies, making an interplanetary app. Well, pretty interesting strings to connect, we must say.

Coming back to WhiteHat Jr, it currently has more than 4 million subscribers globally, among whom around 100,000 students are paid subscribers. The maximum traction is seen from Grade 1-9 and focuses on building Grade 10-12. No wonder, many parents are rushing in to make their kids future-safe in a world that will greatly focus on artificial intelligence, coding, and the cyber world.

After being founded in November 2018 by Indian-born American entrepreneur and author Karan Bajaj, and being acquired later by Byju’s for Rs 2,223 crores, the edtech startup became a part of the multi-billion dollar online education empire. However, despite creating headlines with the biggest deal in the Indian edtech space, WhiteHat Jr has faced the wrath of parents and some technology experts in recent times, because of its advertising strategy, policy against criticism on social media platforms.

WhiteHat Jr

Who is Wolf Gupta?

Meet Wolf Gupta, the child prodigy whose age keeps changing between 9-14 years and who is claimed to have bagged a job at Google after learning coding from WhiteHat Jr. His salary amount too keeps changing between Rs 1.2-150 crore, just like his age.

However, Wolf Gupta is not real and the bizarre claims about his salary were all part of the marketing gimmick by the startup, as it has been revealed in the process of the legal battle between Pradeep Poonia and the WhiteHat Jr.

Silencing criticism

This was the move that actually fuelled widespread criticism against WhiteHat Jr. While it attempted to lure parents to enroll their kids to the online coding classes, milking the fear of the kids being left behind in the competitive rat race in India’s education system and not being worthy to fight the career battle in future; Pradeep Poonia, a software engineer with Cisco raised his voice against the firm and its ad campaign, which didn’t go well with the edtech.

As Poonia claimed, to silence the criticism his two Reddit accounts were suspended permanently alongside one Twitter account and two YouTube accounts as well. Also, one Quora account was temporarily suspended as well. Besides that, 16 videos were removed from YouTube, where he criticised the edtech and its strategy.

Not only that. Poonia was drawn to court with a Rs 20 crore (The same amount as Wolf Gupta’s package from Google, as per one ad by WhiteHat Jr) defamation lawsuit by WhiteHat Jr and its CEO Karan Bajaj.

The company has been accused of trying to silence other critics as well. It filed a Rs 14 crore defamation lawsuit against angel investor Aniruddha Malpani for ‘derogatory imputations’ about WhiteHat Jr in a series of tweets where he questioned the edtech’s marketing strategy.

Jehan Haria, a 12-year-old boy also faced this ‘silence the criticism’ strategy. Haria posted a spoof video in October 2020 mocking WhiteHat Jr and its unrealistic claims in the advertisements. Soon after that, he found the video was taken down by YouTube.

Back in October 2020, the Advertising Standards Council of India asked WhiteHat Jr to remove five of its ads for making misleading claims on social media. One of these ads showed a 7-year-old girl as a TEDx speaker and app developer.

Meanwhile, the Wolf Gupta ads were finally withdrawn by WhiteHat Jr after the revelation of fakery by Pradeep Poonia. However, despite mentioning the fact in the legal notice, the company never disclosed that Wolf Gupta was actually an imaginary character.

  • WhiteHat Jr was launched in November 2018.
  • It conducts more than 20,000 classes every day.
  • The edtech introduced 3 million children to coding.
  • More than 5,000 teachers are involved with the platform.
  • It fetched $150 million annual revenue within 18 months.
  • WhiteHat Jr aims to create 100,000 teaching jobs in India.
  • After over two years, the platform is eyeing further global expansion.

Fueling rat race

After the defamation lawsuit came to light, the matter exploded and the company started drawing sharp criticism from several parts of society. The ads were misleading the parents and kids by mixing reality with fakery. While Wolf Gupta was a fictitious character, Google is a real company. Such kind of strategy leads the viewer/audience/reader to assume that the story is possibly a real one, just like giving a benefit of the doubt in a Cricket match.

During the proceedings of the defamation lawsuit, Delhi High Court too took cognizance of the fact (Read the entire lawsuit here) that such kind of advertisements can have their consequences on child psychology. They can affect the parents as well, by fuelling their fear for their kids.

WhiteHat Jr

Why it is alarming for India?

In India, where lakhs of students every year go through fierce competition to secure seats at schools, colleges, and universities, such kind of misleading ads could impact fatally. These could lead to juvenile or adolescent depression, which is considered a silent killer and a major problem in modern society. It drives many young people to suicide.

According to the 2015 data by National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), 8,934 students committed suicide. That means every hour one student commits suicide in India, with around 28 such suicides reported every day, according to data compiled by the NCRB. As per data, 9,478 students died in 2016, 9,905 in 2017 and 10,159 in 2018. In 2019, among the total 1.39 lakh suicides recorded by NCRB, 93,016 or 67% were committed by youngsters. Among them, 10,335 were students, the highest in 25 years. This means every one hour, a student died by suicide.

Clearly, the number of suicides by students has been increasing at a steady rate over the past decade. Many of these students decided to end their lives because of the pressure that was spawned by the high expectations, their own and parents’ of course.

Hence, it is really alarming for India, as the abovementioned way of advertising the product could build up mental pressure on the students, who are still below 15 years.

Danger of too much pressure on kids:

  • Higher rates of mental illness.
  • Increased likelihood of cheating.
  • Refusing to participate.
  • Self-esteem problems.
  • Sleep deprivation.
  • Juvenile depression.

Let the kids be kids

Though WhiteHat Jr ran misleading ad campaigns to lure the parents to enroll their kids in the classes the company is offering, we cannot solely point the finger towards the edtech firm. Parents who are enrolling their kids in the coding program that claims ‘40 classes to reach Silicon Valley’, should also think if their kids should be in this high salary rat race.

It’s like a relay race that never ends and impacts on stress levels. Instead of dreaming of Rs 150 crore salaries shouldn’t the kids be just kids and enjoy their childhood? This is the same country where ‘Taare Zameen Par’ became a blockbuster movie.

What these coding narratives are doing to the children is exactly what some soft drink and fast food giants did to mass health in the country decades back. Also, this is making kids the new commodity.

Learning codes can wait, the childhood won’t.

Also Read: India in focus: What’s Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg saying?

Mainak Das
Mainak Das
Working as a journalist since 2011. Started as a sports journalist and later begun writing as an auto journalist. Worked with The Economic Times, Discovery India etc. Also working as an independent PR consultant and car concierge.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

Share post:


More like this

CXOs believe there’s no conflict between climate goals and growth

Is there any conflict between the climate goal of...

Behavioural economics of spontaneity: What neoclassical economics does not teach us

What is the behavioural economics of spontaneity? There is...

The saga of electric vehicles: Electrocution of livelihood and cycling!

Electric vehicles are grabbing all the attention in the...

The rising significance of sustainability in business

Adopting sustainable practices is no longer optional for businesses....