Mehak and Ishaan met on Instagram, when, following the hashtag #happy, Ishaan came upon Mehak’s selfie of herself wearing a white and black striped T-shirt, with a sleepy pout on her face. He left a generous comment – “Cute” – which set her all aflutter. They had a mutual ‘follower’ they were both vaguely acquainted with and so they began to follow one another too without qualms, clicking on the heart symbol to ‘like’ one another’s photos almost daily for over a year.
It turned out that Mehak, 15, and Ishaan, 17, were both based in Delhi just a few kilometres apart, though they went to different schools. With Instagram providing a daily reminder and chronicle of each other’s lives, they felt reasonably close enough to initiate a Kik chat and then a WhatsApp conversation a year later. (“WhatsApp is about giving your mobile number, which is not something I’d do with any random stranger, duh?” says Mehak, using an expression best described as condescending when asked to explain the difference between the two chat apps.) In a few months, by when Ishaan was old enough to drive, the teenagers progressed to Facebook, thus crossing the ultimate intimate frontier, sharing their daily lives, families and opinions with one another. This quickly led to phone calls and, finally, to their first meeting in person when Ishaan drove his Maruti Wagon R, picked Mehak from the main road a few discreet steps away from her south Delhi home, and went with her to a coffee shop in a mall.
They fell in love, and other arsenal was brought out of the cellphone to feed the flame – Snapchat, where they could send messages and videos that self-destructed after a preset amount of time; Hike, where they could ‘hide’ messages from the folks; Twitter, where they followed one another’s working-professional parents out of general curiosity; Viber, to make phone calls late into the night without a corresponding rise in the phone bill; and Skype, for video chats when they went on family holidays where roaming didn’t work. They continued to meet once a month in public places, going as far as “second base” in the privacy of Ishaan’s car.
The modern-day fairy tale fell apart when Mehak entered class 12. By then, the pressure of studies (for her) combined with newfound college freedom that brought with it prettier shores (for him) led to bitter quarrels, insecurity and heartache. They officially broke up through WhatsApp (“Why would anyone want to break up on the phone?” asks Mehak), and deleted each other from Facebook but were forced to be part of each other’s lives through other apps that did not allow for such clean breaks. They could not, in Toni Braxton’s words, ‘un-break their hearts’. And so they did what any normal teenager would do: they promptly fell in love with someone else, and boasted off their new, improved partners on Instagram, passionately hoping their ex would notice.
“Technology has made romance harder, not easier, for teens,” says Sujata Chatterjee, a Delhi-based clinical psychologist who has worked with Mehak in the past. “A lot of the qualities of the interaction are often imagined, especially when people meet online and not in person. Often our deepest needs are searched for and found in the image of the person we create for ourselves. When that is not confirmed in reality, there are a lot of disappointments to survive.” She points out that the onset of puberty has become earlier in recent decades (now at the age of 8-12 for girls, 10-13 for boys), but stable relationships are achieved and marriages are taking place later and later, leading to an extended adolescence with its tumultuous stretch of love and longing.
“With smartphone messengers that allow you to see when the other person has read your message and to gauge the rate of response, these teens are on tenterhooks all the time. There’s no intuitive ‘knowing in your heart’ that comes from face-to-face boy-girl contact that people would have to wait for… Today, the waiting of minutes is just unbearable. It’s a huge burden on the relationship,” she says, adding that educated, urban parents are at a crossroads. “Different people respond differently. Some just blame peers if something goes wrong – ‘she got into the wrong company,’ they say. But that makes a victim of your child. If you take away choice, you take away responsibility. The key is how you negotiate your way through the needs of the situation as a parent. Blanket bans only drive teen romance undercover – and total permissiveness doesn’t work either; children need to learn to think through a course of action and its consequences while discovering real-life boundaries through their own experiences of hurt and happiness,” she points out.
The rules have changed, the battleground has moved, the allies and foes are interchangeable. Conservative values and sex-shy family communication are clashing with overtly sexual media messages wherever you turn, from Bollywood songs to Western TV shows to front pages of newspapers. One can forgive today’s urban parents for pulling their hair out in bewilderment at just where to draw the line when it comes to the thorny maze called adolescence. The infamous MMS scandal of over a decade ago – when a class 11 student of Delhi’s famous DPS RK Puram school shared with his buddies a video of his half-naked girlfriend performing oral sex on him, which consequently led to the MMS going viral, the boy being expelled, the girl reportedly being ‘exiled’ abroad by her family, and a 2009 Bollywood movie Dev.D made of it – only let the cat of teen sex out of the bag, but didn’t bring with it any rulebook on how to deal with it. With the advent of the Internet, lusty young hormones have much to get them buzzing. With the coming of the smartphone, the devil is in your pocket. With apps and social media serving as a resource across all generations and social groups, the average teenager’s parents are damned if they clamp down and damned if they don’t.
Meenakkshi Jaiin, a feng shui consultant whose two daughters are students of DPS RK Puram, admits to being part of a minority of parents who are open-minded when it comes to teen relationships. “I think the present generation of teens is less hypocritical than ours. There are fewer double standards, unlike the older generation who did the same things in secret when they were teenagers themselves,” she opines. When her younger daughter, age 15, had to make a heartbreaking choice in love, Jaiin told her to relax: “Nothing is the end of life. Go with the decision that feels ‘light’ – that’s a good benchmark for every major decision.” She says she would rather make home a welcoming space for her daughters to return to than a prison full of rules. “We talk about sex; they tell me what happens in class, who is having sex and who isn’t. It is all very light-hearted. There’s no stress attached to these discussions. It’s more important for them to make good choices when it comes to friends – that’s where they get the maximum support from.”
She’s right. A study of 78 American middle-school students published in Child Development found that teens who picked healthier partners were mentally and socially healthier a year later. A more extensive 2007 study done in collaboration between Cornell University, University of Rochester, the New York State Center for School Safety and Cornell Cooperative Extension of New York City found that romantic relationships are central to social life during middle to late adolescence (age 15-19). The study found that three-fourths of American teens age 16-18 had dated or ‘hooked up’, with over half of these having been in a serious relationship – figures for urban, online Indians may not differ too vastly. Most youth spent more time with their romantic partners than their family and friends, which in turn led to crucial developmental milestones such as forming a sense of identity, refining personal values and interpersonal skills, providing emotional support and boosting resilience. This was even more significant in the case of sexual minority youth compelled by social norms to keep their orientation a secret – their romantic partners were the only people with whom they could feel comfortable and safe sharing thoughts and feelings.
Of course, there are also those who don’t do so well. In India, it appears boys face greater amounts of stress in relationships both as aggressors and as victims. In a study of adolescents in the age group of 16–22 years from Guru Jambheshwar University of Science and Technology, Hisar, Haryana, it was found that boys had higher self-esteem and larger egos than girls, which made them more sensitive to ‘loss of respect’ by others. They also got angrier if their girlfriend did not pay enough attention to them – a possible outcome of our social codes that require girls to be quiet and less expressive about sexuality and deep feelings. Sex education could address some of these problems.
This is in fact something that Lakshmi Kumar, director of Orchid School in Pune, has been working towards. One of the pioneers in implementing the Life Skills Orientation Course in middle school, her school is remarkably progressive compared to others even in bigger cities, teaching adolescents all about sexual choices, consequences and responsibilities, including the hazards of underage pregnancy. “No one talks to them about sex – about power, consent, equality, pleasure, respect. Parents are extremely uncomfortable talking about it, so teens have nowhere else to go but social media, other young adults, peer groups or even porn sites, which give them a completely wrong image,” she says. According to a 2010 National Youth Readership Survey (NYRS) published by National Book Trust India in association with National Council of Applied Economic Research, the internet is accessed by over 35 million urban Indian youth (age 13 to 35), with about 75 percent of users ‘expressing confidence’ in the Internet as a reliable source of information. It is absolutely imperative for schools and educationists to step in and demystify sexuality, says Kumar. Though she believes that knowledge of gadgets and social media can be an immense asset, it can also be a bane if teens aren’t taught the impact and outcome of their behaviour online. “Parents and teens can collaborate beautifully; the teens teach us the grassroots of technology; parents can contribute with the value dimension.”
Kumar rues that teen romance these days appears to have an overwhelming material element, an artificial sense of control, and is dominantly patriarchal with the boy expected to pick up the cheque, to drive the girl and to decide what she wears. The boundaries between romance and sex, between feelings and experimentation, have blurred, she adds. Parents were initially scandalised when their ninth-grade kids went home and said they’d learnt about condoms in school. “We can’t assume these kids will have sex only after marriage. We have to equip them in emotional, social, cultural and physiological ways for every possibility,” says Kumar, who had to hold orientation sessions for parents to explain what the school was up to. “They were relieved but also embarrassed. It was a heavy silence zone,” she recalls.
Oorja Gonepavaram, a class 10 student in Kumar’s Pune school who admits she is “hopeless at romance”, shares that Tumblr and 9gag are still the most commonly used websites amongst the kids in her class – all very innocent when compared with high-school kids in Delhi and Mumbai. “Facebook totally disrupts studies, and we’re slightly afraid of WhatsApp because it reveals our profiles. Our school has taught us all about online privacy and cyberbullying,” she explains. According to her, there are two kinds of students: those who are in a relationship and those who are desperate to be in a relationship. And most of their parents don’t know. “It’s not love. It’s a status symbol. If a girl has a boyfriend, other boys will be afraid to approach her. And having a girlfriend helps boys keep creepy girls away – there’s nothing worse for a boy’s reputation than having a creepy girl fan,” she adds, sagely. Her words echo the findings of a paper called Early, middle, and late adolescents’ views on dating and factors influencing partner selection, by Roscoe, Diana and Brooks, which said that teen relationships are highly egocentric, and are motivated by immediate gratification, recreation and status attainment.
For urban, English-educated Indian youth, there’s another problem: the popularity of American TV shows. Parenting expert and the Ahmedabad-based author of Roots and Wings, Raksha Bharadia found paradoxical worlds while sifting through thousands of entries for two books for the Chicken Soup series on Indian teenagers that she edited. “There’s this big physical world of Indian traditions and rituals that these kids inhabit, and then there’s the world of social media and TV shows such as Big Bang Theory, Two and a Half Men, Gossip Girls and Two Broke Girls, all of which influence their attitudes towards relationships and sexuality. But it’s not our world, and so there’s this whole lot of guilt and confusion,” she says. An average literate youth in India spends 98 minutes daily viewing TV and 70 minutes surfing the net, according to the NYRS. The teens in Bharadia’s books shared stories about enormous amounts of peer pressure to be in a relationship, to drink alcohol, explore drugs, have sex, and the overarching need for secrecy. “What these kids need is intervention from a neutral source; otherwise, television is messing them up. They demand the independence of the Western youth they see on screen, but not their responsibilities (such as earning their way through college). They want the benefits and comforts of Indian social structures as well,” says Bharadia, who is a mother of two teenage daughters herself.
It is a typical problem that also confronts Dr Kushal Jain, senior consultant psychologist at VIMHANS hospital, Delhi, who finds that technology has given a boost to availability and impulsivity in teen romance and has added a dimension of information overload without enough time to process the pros and cons. Tech-savvy teenagers – many of whom are now having sex as early as 13 – base their infatuation on text messages and ‘pro-pics’ (profile photos), not on knowledge of past actions, facial expressions, body language and the sheer effort that went into old-world romance, such as writing a poetic, handwritten letter. “This generation makes and breaks relationships very quickly. It’s like two-minute noodles,” he says, adding that the issue has a clear class divide, with affluent parents being far more accepting of teen romance than middle-class ones, who still live in much more conservative social setups. Having met plenty of kids who break down, get into drug use or attempt suicide, he isn’t a big fan of technology and social media. “I think it has only made things worse. Relationships are shallower. There’s tremendous pressure to update your status at all times, to project a certain image of yourself. Everyone is a celebrity online; it creates a false sense of self-importance,” he says. But silence of the folks isn’t helping either. “Mothers sometimes talk to daughters, but boys are a neglected lot. Their knowledge of sex and romance is completely based on hearsay and other unsuitable sources.”
A part of the problem is being tackled by groups such as the Centre for Children in Internet and Technology Distress, Delhi’s first internet de-addiction centre, launched by an NGO, Uday Foundation this July. Helping adolescents regain their self-control on computer use and encouraging them to play old traditional indoor and outdoor games, the centre organises weekends for the children and their parents filled with group activities like yoga, meditation, games and storytelling. Kids are advised to use landlines instead of the mobile phone, to make calls instead of texting, to switch off gadgets by 7 pm, and to avoid social media and gaming while downloading homework.
Family-taught values, however, remain the key to balanced use of technology and healthy teenage relationships. Apps and websites that appeal to baser instincts will always be around, but how the child uses them could depend on the way he or she is nudged. Take for example Ask.fm, a Latvia-based website that offers a platform for anyone to ask anonymous questions. It has a reader base of over 130 million, who post millions of questions and answers a day in 49 languages. Hugely popular with Indian teenagers, it is a space for people to meet, criticise, joke, and generally ask questions they could not do in person. Typical questions on a teenager’s feed are “Who’s your crush?” and “Would you go out with so-and-so?” but, as with any other social media tool, Ask.fm has a dark side. An article published in Time magazine this summer told tales of at least seven teenagers who had committed suicide unable to face the nasty comments left by anonymous acquaintances on Ask.fm. Other critics have also sought to blame the website for enabling cyberbullying without questioning the mindset that leads to such behaviour in the first place. “Yes, there is bullying on Ask.fm,” my 15-year-old daughter admitted to me, “but that happens in the classroom too. You find a way to deal with it and you move on. Those who commit suicide because of something someone said on Ask.fm, or those who bully others on Ask.fm, would do it in any other circumstance too.”
Accepting that we live in difficult times, Raksha Bharadia recommends that parents get support from schools or counsellors to address teen issues related to sex, technology and romance if they aren’t able to bring up the subject themselves. Lakshmi Kumar agrees. “Just because we are not comfortable talking to our teenagers about it doesn’t mean we can brush these issues away. Instead of prescriptive, the discourse needs to be constructive, designed keeping the learner’s needs in mind,” she says, adding, “It’s time to open the curtain.”
First published in the November 12, 2014, issue of Open magazine