What school girls in India can teach us about social media

In most Pune schools, the new term is under way. Activities are in full swing and tests have already begun. Students wake up as early as six in the morning and the school day hums along amidst ringing bells and slamming lockers. Extra tuition classes take up the afternoons. And so it goes.



But wait. Something has happened at school that needs to be discussed right now. Two best friends take the long route back home, walking slowly so they have more time to talk. At the dinner table, a heated WhatsApp conversation ends only when an exasperated parent confiscates the phone. Everyone has at least one selfie on Instagram. Is it time to unfriend your elder brother yet? You know how brothers are. Somebody’s crush has just uploaded a picture of himself with a guitar. Like. Thumbs up. After dinner, it’s time for homework or bed. Phones are plugged in to charge overnight. The rhythm of life is steady; quiet but exciting.



Or is it?



A newspaper report found that children in tier-two cities (of which Pune was, until recently, one of the largest) openly flout Facebook’s under-13 rule, making their way to the popular social media platform in droves. In 2014, an article claimed that one in three children in Indian cities had been at the receiving end of cyber bullying. This was also the same year that McAfee released data suggesting that 70% of Indian teenagers online put themselves at risk by posting personal information. To add to the mix, a study by the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences found that 73% of Indian teenagers suffer from behavioural and psychological problems due to ‘internet addiction’.



Most conversation on children and the internet suggests a dark and sinister world filled with cyber bullying, character assassination, and abuse. The platform for this abuse is almost always a social networking site, and the victim is, by default, a girl. In a recent Times of India report from Nagpur, a lawyer is quoted as saying, ‘The biggest mistake girls make on social networking sites is that they do not apply rules of [the] real world.’ Ah yes, the real world. The dark street is now an Instagram account. The predator lurking around the corner now comes via a friend request from a stranger. What hasn’t changed, though, is a moral code that puts girls in their place and tries to control their activity. One that tells them: be a good girl, or you’ll only invite trouble.



Social media, so it would seem, is a trouble-inviting place. And since being a good girl involves speaking only when you’re spoken to, there’s one crucial set of voices missing from the debate: the girls themselves.



Which makes me wonder, how big a deal is social media in the lives of schoolgirls anyway?





‘I like to stalk people and look at their profiles,’ says 15-year-old Nitya*. ‘Those people who are socially active online keep posting pictures all the time, but they are really good for nothing types.’ Nitya herself stays away from posting statuses, and her Facebook profile has very few pictures, except those she’s been tagged in. ‘I never express myself online. Even if one person is talking politely, some other person will abuse. And you know, that’s not how you talk. People keep expressing their views over Facebook. Why not do it in a debate?’



I meet Nitya, Kavita and Sachi in Kavita’s living room, where we chat over the incessant cheeping of the family’s pet lovebirds. There’s plum cake and laughter going around. Sachi is 15, opinionated, and on the school debate team. 16-year-old Kavita comes off as shy, but I know better. Before the other two arrive, Kavita’s mother insists she play the baby grand piano for me. As her fingers fly over the keys, her reserve falls away and her clear voice fills the room. Nitya, leading the conversation, is the most talkative. They are next-door neighbours and fast friends, and share weekends filled with sleepovers, movies, and the occasional game of rain hockey (I asked. It’s exactly what it sounds like).



‘I’ve just joined Facebook, so I only post pictures sometimes. I don’t really use it for anything else,’ Kavita tells me. Nitya, on the other hand, has been on the popular platform since she was in Grade 5. And over the last month alone, Sachi has deleted her account, re-activated it and then deleted it again — out of sheer boredom. Despite their varying entry points to social media, they are all silent observers online, perpetually on the lookout for stuff to gossip about. And there’s always plenty of gossip.



‘People in our class were caught for posting controversial pictures and using bad language. You don’t publicise that kind of stuff! I mean, what kind of person are you?’ asks Nitya. It’s perhaps out of a desire not to be labelled ‘that kind of a person’ that ask.fm, a popular website with an estimated 150 million users worldwide, has found its fans in teenagers across the world. The site is premised on the ability to ask fellow users a question — any question. The thrill of it lies in askers having the option to remain anonymous, even if they know the askee in real life. The questions, Sachi breezily tells me, ‘Can be anything from PAP to OOTD.’ Say what? ‘It’s Outfit Of The Day. And PAP is Post A Picture.’ Not all questions are quite so innocent though. ‘Oh ya, there are a lot of pervy guys, but if you block them then their questions don’t come up on your feed.’



Speaking of guys, 15-year-old Khursheed has some stories to tell. I meet Khursheed and two of her friends at their swanky gated apartment complex in Kalyaninagar — the kind that has manicured lawns, tall glass buildings, and very, very tight security. ‘There was this one guy who followed me on Instagram and I knew him, he used to be in my school. We were just texting and then all of a sudden he asked me out,’ she exasperatedly recalls. Then she recounts another incident. ‘This guy in our building messaged me on Facebook once saying, “Hi sweetheart, you look very pretty in that dress.” I just blocked him straight away. When I had to meet him later it was so weird but then my dad told me to just stop talking to him.’ Guarded online and extra-careful on Facebook (‘too many relatives’), Khursheed’s use of social media largely centres on Instagram, where she follows high end clothing brands so that she can let her fashion-forward mother know when the sales are. Khursheed herself has zero interest in fashion.



‘I like fashion,’ says 13-year-old Maria simply. That’s not all she likes. She plays basketball, is on the school’s boxing team, and she’s just tried out the role of Annie in the school play. When I ask Maria whether there’s such a thing as an online versus an offline self, she looks confused. Facebook is incidental in her life — something she joined to get access to a game she wanted to play. Her classmates have only just joined Facebook too, and she can’t conceive of someone being different online than who they are offline.



Yet (and there is always a yet with these girls), her Instagram moniker is Tara, a name that she has always liked and wishes she could use in everyday life. Is there a difference between Tara and Maria? ‘Maria prefers gaming and Tara is into beauty and makeup stuff,’ she giggles. She’s not self-conscious at all about this dual identity, whereas girls who have been on social media longer are quick to condemn the odd friend who presents an unrecognisable version of themselves online. For instance, 13-year-old Shruti says of one of her friends, ‘In real life, she’s so jolly and always laughing. But on Facebook she puts up these posts that are all deep. There are many people like this. They just want to show that they’re cool.’ Shruti is quick to affirm that she herself is not party to the machinations of what it takes to be cool.



But via her gleeful laugh, Maria takes the sting out of the accusation. Who cares about what’s cool or not? She’s just having fun, and perhaps along the way, figuring out who she wants to be.





In an arresting scene from the American TV show Louie, comedian Louis CK and his teenage daughter Lily are watching a play. While Louie responds with tears and laughter, Lily appears unmoved. At one point, she whips out her phone and becomes engrossed in it. Afterwards, when an outraged Louie demands that his daughter give him her phone, Lily reveals that she was actually reading about the play while watching it. Did Louie know, for instance, that the play was banned in both Russia and Israel? She looks up at him: ‘Just because I can appreciate something on two levels, doesn’t mean I don’t deserve to have my phone.’ Boom.



Back in Pune, the tussle between generations is much the same, but tinged with a doomsday vibe of imminent danger. Parents who speak to me after I talk to their daughters mention vague, disturbing things they have read about the internet in newspapers. The younger girls I speak to, some of whom are not on social media yet, echo what the adults say — that the internet has ‘things that are not for our age’. One mother says when I call, ‘Yes, yes please speak to my daughter. She’ll be glad to tell you what a big Hitler I am.’



To help me understand the real versus imagined risks of the big, bad internet, I meet Shweta Chawla, a private investigator who assists the Pune Cyber Crimes unit. Along with investigating cases, Shweta conducts training programmes in cyber safety for both children and working professionals. ‘It’s very important for parents to know what their child is doing online. They need to set ground rules.’ A big part of what Shweta does in her workshops with children is try to ensure they have an adult they can turn to if they are ever in trouble online.



The picture, according to her, is grim. ‘We’ve been in touch with a number of organisations abroad and the feedback they’re giving us is that India is steadily becoming the location for paedophilia.’ Just a couple of months ago, The Hindu warned parents against posting pictures of their children online after sexual predators were discovered on Facebook. Other reports also mark India as one among many sites where foreign nationals may prey upon children, but whether or not the internet has anything to do with it is unclear.



Contrary to popular opinion, though, it’s not that girls are more at risk than boys. Shweta tells me, ‘What makes a difference is how children deal with it. Girls are more likely to talk to an adult if they get into trouble. Boys display more shame, so admitting that one is being abused is more difficult.’ Shweta also notices that girls tend to be selective about their friends online, whereas boys are perfectly happy being friends with a whole bunch of people.



In her book It’s Complicated: the social lives of networked teens, author Danah Boyd explores the relationship that American teenagers have with social media. In a chapter titled ‘Danger: Are sexual predators lurking everywhere?’ Boyd comments on a culture of parental fear that is steadily being exploited by software companies, popular culture, and mainstream media. She writes, ‘They [parents] are afraid because terrible things do happen to children. And although those violations most commonly take place in known environments — home, school, place of worship, and so on — the internet introduces an unknown space that is harder to comprehend. Nothing feeds fear more than uncertainty.’ Does a similar language of fear exist in India too? If it does, according to Shweta, it’s not scary enough.



I wonder if these girls, so full of confidence and energy, know when they’re being had? Do they know how to deal with an adult who starts out befriending them and then moves on to something more sinister? The thing about talking to teenagers is that they always sound like they’re in control. But are they?



For the most part, the girls I met have no problem with parents looking over their smartphone activity, and they don’t put up their addresses or phone numbers online. But besides that, they also have a network of friends who’ve got their backs. ‘This one time, I clicked something on Facebook and my number went up by mistake. A friend of mine called me and told me to take it down,’ Sachi recalls. Once a stranger sent a message to Maria over WhatsApp and she thought it was one of her friends. When she realised she didn’t know the person, she blocked him immediately. In turn, Nitya has changed her WhatsApp settings so that only her friends can see her profile picture. It may be trial and error for these girls with social media, but then again, so is life.





14-year-old Neha worships at St Paul’s Church, where the congregation comprises a close-knit group of families whose children all attend Sunday School together. Neha is one of the few girls I’ve spoken to whose Facebook activity consists of more than uploading the odd picture. ‘I do post about politics,’ she tells me. ‘Especially about things that bother me.’ Earnest with budding feminist sensibilities, Neha is free and easy with opinions online — except when it comes to religion. She recalls how she once read some right wing propaganda claiming that India was a Hindu nation. ‘I felt angry, but I wanted to wait till things died down,’ she says.



That she has developed a sense of self-preservation as a minority is telling of how India, along with its internet universe, continues to cement divisions along class, caste and religious lines. Sachi tells me how users on ask.fm, for whom English is obviously not a first language, are relentlessly ‘cased’ or bullied. I ask Neha what she thinks of the negative comments she receives. ‘Some of them are very horrid but there will always be one person that supports you.’



If Neha uses social media to understand her own politics, her friend Shruti, who is also a regular Sunday Schooler, uses Instagram and Facebook to pitch summer vacation spots to her family. Maria, in turn, uses social networking platforms to follow her favourite vloggers, a.k.a video bloggers. What’s interesting, though, is how these girls define ‘use’.



Maria has an account on YouTube but no channel, since her mother doesn’t allow her to actually upload any videos. ‘I like watching DIY films and life hacks,’ she explains. When I ask what kinds of videos she would like to put up, she thinks for a long time before saying, ‘Maybe about a craft project that I’ve done. I already have a camera and online editing software, because first my mum said that I would be allowed to put up videos, but then she changed her mind.’ She’s made a home video, too, as practice for when mum eases up on the rules.



Back in Kavita’s living room, Sachi tells me about her new Instagram venture. ‘Me and my friend, we have this account, and we’re selling stuff on it. We make iPhone cases, like decorate them.’ Kavita and her older sister start to giggle, but I resolutely demand details. Do they call customers home? What do they do with the money? ‘We tell the customers to come to Gold Adlabs to pick it up and we charge extra for delivery,’ she explains. The logistics of this endeavour, while certainly impressive, are of course firmly rooted in the privilege of class. For buyers who want their product home delivered, the family driver is dispatched with the goods and returns with the money. The proceeds go to a neighbourhood aunty who runs a charity for children.





Some adults bemoan the death of ‘wholesome’ and robust outdoor games. Others can’t get over the fact that children don’t read anymore. Either way, the accusatory finger is always pointed at the evil lighted screen. However, as Boyd points out, it’s less about what’s on the screen and more about the people behind it. ‘Most teens are not compelled by gadgetry as such — they are compelled by friendship. The gadgets are interesting to them primarily as a means to a social end.’



‘Look,’ demands Sachi, waving her phone at me. ‘Look at the lame things Kavita sends us.’ Indeed Kavita has sent out a message to a bunch of classmates asking them to pick her best characteristics from a given list. ‘I just reply saying “all” and then she replies saying, “aaaaw”.’ They laugh. Replying to a forward, no matter how silly, is a testament to love and friendship. Similarly, almost all of Neha’s class is on the same WhatsApp group, but only close friends are admitted into a second, more intimate group. Maria’s crush (‘He’s also my friend but I don’t know if he likes me back’) keeps posting pictures, so she is able to glimpse his life outside the classroom.



But friendships are not all built to last, and some, often unfairly, must suffer social media’s death knell. Girls who are ‘misguided’ or too wild for parental tastes may be gently weeded out of groups. ‘My mom is cool with me chatting with my building friends. But if it’s school friends, especially this one girl who had WhatsApped me once saying that she was drunk, then my mom gets really hyper. She tells me not to talk to people like that anymore,’ says Khursheed. There is a pattern to who passes the Social Media Test of Friendship (survivor version), but in many ways, it says more about us than about the girls themselves.



India often gets presented in binaries: either the big ol’ corrupt city or the subaltern rural space. Pune, along with many other cities in India, lies between these binaries. It has the comfort and elegance of a metropolis folded into the intimacy of a smaller town. Families who have lived here for generations swear by its unalterable spirit of camaraderie and friendship. People dine out at the same places, go to the same bars, and take their kids to the same parks they went to as children. Punekars seek comfort in familiarity, but not always excitement in novelty.



For these schoolgirls, the familiarity of Pune and the novelty of a wider world come together in online spaces. Contrary to popular narratives of addiction and threats, these girls were born into a world, as Boyd puts it, where ‘technology is a given’. They don’t put social media on a pedestal. They don’t regard the internet as an object to be demystified. The mystery for them lies in trying to understand who they are, what they like, who their friends are, and how the world works. They’re figuring it out. Social media is helping.



*Names have been changed



This piece was originally published in Medium by Deep Dives as part of the series Sexing the Interwebs



Image by Rosangela Ludovico, Hug the Robots (2013)

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