In the age of digitalisation, it is not easy to be a teen. With social media crafting our sense of selves and technology assuring us a place in the status charts, young minds have been more overwhelmed now than ever. Journalist and Abu Dhabi-based author Jyotsna Mohan Bhargava’s new book, Stoned, Shamed, Depressed, closely examines the battles India’s teens are faced with and what makes their lives impenetrable for the adults. Excerpts from an interview…
Lately, a number of books have explored lives of India’s millennials. Your non-fiction focuses very specifically on teens. How are their challenges vastly different from that of the millennials? What led you to explore their internal lives?
Two things led me on to this journey. Firstly, over the last few years, it has been the fascination of seeing children as young as six or seven with an iPad or a phone. I constantly questioned what it was substituting? I wanted to dig deeper and see where it leads them and what I found has not always been a pretty picture. Having said that, I maintain that a gadget harnessed responsibly at an older age can have much going for it. Secondly, I was increasingly baffled with the lack of attention that was being given to serious issues that involved our children. They made the headlines – whether it was suicides after an examination result or due to the desperation of gaming – and then 48 hours later, they disappeared from public memory. Look at the Bois locker room, so much furore and now nothing. It is not like these issues have gone away and it made me wonder why we aren’t talking more about them, especially since this digital generation is unlike any, and they need our attention.
The struggle is universal amongst the privileged urban teen or a millennial but therein also lies the difference. The protagonists of my book are still in school, far away from diving into the real world of jobs and worldly matters and yet school life for many is no longer that carefree time that it once was. The fight today is for an identity in a social media bubble and for that, just an Instagram account on a smartphone is enough. When I started writing Stoned, Shamed, Depressed, it was to be an investigation into the lives of teens but I ended up with tweens – the 8-12 age group being a big part of my book. They are actually the ones who are at the centre of gadget vulnerability. I now consider them the new teens because anyone who has access to a gadget and that too when they are young, has an exposure far beyond what we would like to believe.
Did the families and the teens you spoke to open up to you easily?
The children were very easy to speak with and therein lies the message. This generation wants conversations, and they also want our society to know that they are different so that we can manage our expectations accordingly. They may be different but that doesn’t always make them wrong. I started with children who I know personally and then the net just widened. For instance, I had three different children narrating one case study to me and you realise the reach of these incidents through social media and it makes you wonder, if we were in their place, how would we have handled so much pressure? It was of utmost importance to be sensitive to their age. The families though were a mixed bag, some even wanted to keep their real names to raise awareness through their and their child’s experiences. But these are not a majority, many parents still remain in denial and for them all this is controversial and ‘they would rather not talk about it.’
Are the challenges of this generation easily undermined by the families and society because they seem unrelatable?
Absolutely. A counsellor told me how she was in awe of this generation for multi-tasking and she is right. Today’s kids are in a sense being attacked on so many fronts – whether it is pressure offline from families or peer pressure online on social media. Yet, because a lot of what they experience is intangible, we just dismiss it as a phase. Body shaming, peer pressure, mental health – these are not small issues when it comes to this generation and yet we have never confronted them even when it comes to the adults, so imagine the disadvantage the children are starting with.
How is social media shaping their lives?
A majority of their behaviour is dictated by social media and validation in cyberspace is of utmost importance – the ease with which accounts are hacked and sold, the nude leaks through SnapChat and yes, the pain – imaginary or otherwise – of this generation which cuts its wrist at the drop of a hat. There have been several incidents like these that caught me completely unaware, so even if I was aware that some issues were serious, I was still taken aback by the intensity of the actions. The urgency to be someone in cyberspace and the anonymity that allows you to be exactly what you want to be online is dictating a lot of behaviour even in middle school and sometimes it takes them to the edge, at other times, it is leading to aggressive behaviour.
What sort of challenge does balancing online and offline presence present to the teens?
It seems to me that they have only two choices today – either to conform online to what their peers are doing or to listen to the families offline. Peers have always had a say in how students behave and react, but cyberspace has made it more intense today. And many are choosing to go with their colleagues, they will absolutely not snitch on their friends, although I think to call them friends is also being generous. In cyberspace, there are no lasting relationships. Children feel they have time to explain things to their families while online time is always running out! Many parents have told me how teens tell them to take consent before posting anything related to them.
Does it mean modern parenting needs to be relooked?
For sure. What we were as children will no longer work, neither will the thinking of a traditional society. With changing time, we need to open up the conversations, accept that these children don’t want to follow blind expectations. Also, if your child is small, there is still time, try not giving unrestricted freedom on the gadgets, leave alone a smartphone. Reversing these decisions later when they become the norm is not easy. Plus, we need to up our game when it comes to tech knowledge. I don’t think we can proudly dismiss the fact that our child knows more than us.
You focus on body image issues and a heightened anxiety that these teens suffer from. Where does this sense come from?
Looking, feeling and behaving cool is on the top of their list, especially when it comes to girls. So many of them spoke about being disheartened because their body shape was not conventionally thin. They directly blame this for their inability to have a boyfriend or to be popular. Nor are girls sensitive to each other, and so just a casual remark even online has the potential to rip their fragile egos. I find this generation to be extremely sensitive, which is why although these incidents may seem like something that happens across school campus, they have the ability to be life-changing.
The book’s title also emphasises on ‘secret lives of teens’. What makes their lives so impenetrable for the adults?
For today’s kids, it is all about their peers and everything they say is sacrosanct, which is why if parents aren’t invested and involved, it is very easy to miss the signs. Even the tweens guard their privacy and anonymity, multiple accounts allow them to be part of the free-falling experience. It is hard for us to imagine that young children, who have everything, are on substance or have anorexia. These children spoke to me as a stranger but in a sense, these secret lives are also from their own families. I have tried to show these families the mirror, I hope they take a good look.