Adolescence, the transition from childhood to adulthood, is laden with the confusion of self-image, hormonal changes and sexual sentience. Puberty opens a portal into the uncanny valley of not being a child or an adult, but a very assertive humanoid – caught between parental authority, peer pressure and moral standards.
This confusion is not singular to teenagers but extends to their parents and educators. The internet and its rapidly changing landscape match the volatile excitement of adolescence. Social interactions and physical activity patterns have changed. Human beings have been as much agents of change as victims of it.
Today’s youth cannot avoid the internet as the platform continues to develop e-learning, online resources and skill training. The same online space is also home to Child Sexual Abuse Material (CSAM), privacy breaches in the garb of surveillance and the unknown depths of the hidden web. Any visual depiction, doctored or otherwise, of sexually explicit conduct by a minor, is considered Child Sexual Abuse Material.
Pornography implies consent, and none can be furnished by someone underage. Keeping safety, mental health and development in mind, what kind of intervention or guidance can help a teenager interact better with the internet? Here is a look at what Indian parents and educators have to say about this.
“The Internet is transforming the experience of growing up in America. It is also transforming the job of being a parent in America,” cites the Third Way Culture Project, 2005. This observation is not exclusive to America, but a global phenomenon. The cultural and socio-political context changes the effect and approach, but the internet poses some common hurdles in parenthood.
CEO of advertising agency Mobilise, Kamal Krishna, father of two teenage daughters, reminisced his years as a digital marketer in 2004, “I was aware that I wasn’t prepared for it even before I became a parent.” Kamal brings to attention that his generation and the preceding one had most media in common – radio, newspaper and television (to a certain extent). But the internet skipped it all with a deluge of information and access.
CCO of LTS Secure Rintchen, mother of two daughters, resonates with the thought, “It has changed a lot, it does expose children to a huge, limitless world and maybe the impact is something we are still in the process of assimilating.” But what are the parents of this generations’ teenagers doing to cushion the effects of the internet?
The common consensus is open conversation channels and objective information feeding. “Frank, open conversations. There is a general tendency for them to be curious, to explore their sexuality, and as parents, we need to respect that,” Architect Mini Gopinath, mother to a boy, explained that this exploration is not a special trait of the generation. “I’ve had conversations with my child about it, and the child is free enough to talk about it. Normalise this.”
A senior broadcast journalist at BBC Sushila Singh, mother to a tween daughter, believes that explaining good touch from bad is as important as telling them about online hazards. “I have briefly told her about instances where young users were blackmailed by strangers. I kept the information limited so as not to scare her but she is aware of how social media can be harmful.” The Bois locker room scandal back in 2020, revealed an aspect of teenage life online, and CSAM within the age group.
The gendered conditioning of a teenager can produce CSAM within their own communities. An innocent picture shared online can be misused in many ways. Such uncharted psychological territories have increased anxiety in parents by manifolds. Rintchen, while talking about her daughters’ presence on multiple social media platforms, said, “I did have a talk with her and her younger sister about the dangers of communicating with strangers we have not met personally/physically (they might not be who they claim to be) with examples. And did ask her to ensure any connections she accepts are from people she has met/knows.”
According to Sushila, being a working mother, the fear is higher, of not knowing. But she adds, “You have to trust your child!” Mini resonates with this thought, “Facilitate an environment for the child to be fearless and feel free enough, to tell the truth, no matter what. It is important for the child to know that they will never be judged, and feel secure enough to trust us and confide in us.” According to Hyderabad-based educator Pratik Kashiramka, it is important to reflect on the kind of influence one wishes to be in a teenager’s life. “It boils down to the trust you have with an adolescent.”
It is important to acknowledge the delicate balance of adolescence. The youth today are as much children of human parents as they are of the technology that surrounds us. Sudisha Paul Biswas, an educator with 24 years in her bag, says “Parents should be vigilant, but they must have an open mind to accept their wards’ views as today’s generation is much more knowledgeable than us.”
“Treat them like young adults, and believe me when I say this – you know what you know, and that’s not all there is to know. Don’t patronise children,” Kamal summed up. Pratik reasserts this need and mentions that it is essential to understand that a teenager is formulating their value judgement through these years, “You treat them as an adult who is capable of thinking what is right and wrong.”
It is unavoidable that the generation of teenagers and young adults today will be a part of social media. Seeing their parents spend a considerable amount of time online navigating these platforms, it is inevitable that they will be resistant to the idea of a special ban based on their age; especially with the added peer pressure.
Kamal candidly regaled us with a story from a time before his daughters joined social media channels, “I used to bookmark/save a lot of items on Instagram & Twitter – mainly funny or informational/ educational stuff – and I would have a weekly screen session with both the girls going through all of it together.” Both Rintchen and Mini’s children are also on major social media platforms, with their parents’ knowledge and approval.
Sushila’s 12-year-old daughter is currently not on any such platform. She reflected a common concern about physical exercise, “An idle mind wanders. My daughter partakes in many physical activities that keep her occupied.” Kamal also noted that it is not internet usage but screen time that should be monitored, “We occasionally compare our individual screen time reports.”
According to psychologist and founder of The Mental Health Movement Chandigarh, Adrija Chakraborti, “I have observed that most of my clients’ self-esteem gets impacted by what they view on Instagram.” The sense of success is often formulated by the social media format of viewing other people’s lives, generally at their best. Addiction is a common problem of the internet affecting both adults and teenagers, but youth in its vivacity often tends to lack self-control. Adrija adds, “Shaming an addiction never helps. One must understand what role internet usage is playing in an individual’s life without judgement.”
The education system and its facilitators play a crucial role in disseminating knowledge. Kamal informs, “CSAM is a straight-up, primary concern, considering I have two daughters. And fortunately, their school has taken an insane amount of care in explaining things consistently and fairly to its students.” Such measures added with parental guidance can help teenagers make informed decisions about their presence online.
Pratik added, “I think the best an educator can hope to do with regards to adolescents and the internet is guide their use of it. Because by nature teenagers are rebellious. The more you try to stop them from doing something…they will find a way to do it.” Sudisha shares her approach to negotiating with adolescents to help them find their own way, “I never try to impose upon them my thoughts.”
There is no one-fits-all prescription for guiding and monitoring a teenager’s internet usage and its effects. Mini says, “My son by nature is an introvert, quite mature and rather cautious. Because of his nature, I feel he will be fine.” Pratik ruminates on how the internet presents different levels of security and usage patterns based on gender location. The different identities and personalities adorned by teenagers must be taken into consideration when deciding on a parenting style. Adrija mentions, “All clients who do not fit into conventional gender locations have issues with self-esteem and self-worth. I have heard stories of catfishing, sexual violence, and online trolling.” Unfortunately, a great amount of responsibility falls on the guardians and educators as policies and regulations continue to grapple with solutions.
A 2021 report by The Hindu observed that three years after the government had asked internet players to partner with the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) to help prevent access to Child Sexual Abuse Material (CSAM) online, only one out of over 150 operational Internet Service Providers had signed up. With a profit-driven market and consumer-targeted algorithm, that lacks the nuance on how the internet is affecting the youth, it is up to the parents and teachers to help guide adolescents safely without infringing on their autonomy.
As 13-year-old Naiara Tamminga delivered a hard-hitting speech at the Grand Rapids city commission meeting in light of the fatal police brutality on Patrick Lyoya, 15-year-old Greta Thunberg initiated uncomfortable conversations about climate change in 2018, 17-year-old Charitie Ropati helmed educational reform movements to empower Native American students – it would be incredibly presumptuous of adults to believe that they know better.
The precious spirit and intelligence of adolescents need to be harnessed and the internet can aid immensely in realising that. Banning them from this access to the internet’s failure, in shielding them from disturbing content, cannot be the answer. Clear communication channels are crucial between a teenager and their guardian. News must be used as a tool to educate and not scare. An adolescent’s faculty is capable of perceiving safety from danger so their discretion must be taken into account.
Keeping screen time in check cannot be functional without the adults being accountable to theirs. Respect and trust build a teenager’s personality. The fear of the internet cannot be projected onto a minor. It is the guardian’s responsibility to know who their child is, as an individual and in peer groups, and approach them accordingly. Teenagers are as much a child of their parents as they are of society.
It is important to understand the kind of conditioning and pressure they are under during this phase. Educators and counsellors can work as catalysts in this process by furnishing relevant information and sensitisation about navigating the internet, and none of this will be possible without introspecting on what footprints we as adults are leaving on the internet.
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