Teen angst in the digital age

Book cover of Stoned Shamed Depressed: An Explosive Account of the Secret Lives of India’s Teens
Neil Postman began his seminal book Stoned, Shamed, Depressed: An Explosive Account of the Secret Lives of India's Teens, Jyotsna Mohan Bhargava calls upon the reader to re-evaluate the “living messages” of urban India.

Ms Bhargava chronicles the life of India’s well-to-do urban teens. She finds that they are traversing “[a] road that is full of temptations and easy adventure, where the boundaries get blurred and where what happens today can have repercussions for years to come.” Through interviews with teens, parents, teachers and psychologists, she illuminates adolescent struggles with peer pressure, bullying, substance abuse, and other malaises.

Ms Bhargava’s research takes her into “middle-school battlegrounds” where she finds that “tween is the new teen.” These new teens deal with age-old problems from bullying to peer pressure that have “mutated into different and new strains” in a digital world. 

Ms Bhargava repeatedly asserts that technology and social media might have revolutionised the world, but they are not devoid of pitfalls.

India’s teens have morphed into “clones” that “can be found staring into their smartphones, flexing their latest gadgets while living a double life in the virtual world, convinced that the photoshopped version of their faces is the reality.” This obsession is even considered an addiction — World Health Organisation recognises gaming addiction as an illness.

Nonetheless, many parents do not realise that “leaving their kids unsupervised on the internet can leave them to mentally unravel.” With deepfakes, popup advertisement for weight loss, stalkers and cyber bullies — the internet is no walk in the park.  Take, for example, self-harm clips hidden in children’s cartoons on YouTube. Despite the danger, Ms Bhargava reveals that parents continue to use sites like YouTube as “babysitters.” While the internet has numerous positives, she claims that “the distinction is in being strong enough — and old enough — to harness the good of the internet while circumventing the more tempting bad.”

Stoned Shamed Depressed: An Explosive Account of the Secret Lives of India’s Teens 
Author: Jyotsna Mohan Bhargava
Publisher: HarperCollins India
Pages: 284; Price: Rs 399

The most significant advantage of the book lies in this critical analysis of technology in our everyday lives. Readers might find themselves thinking twice before they give their children a phone. In the lives of India’s urban teens, things change at a rapid pace. Yet, what remains constant is archaic taboos and parochial mindsets that pervade Indian society and continue to harm teens. This becomes glaringly apparent when Ms Bhargava boldly explores the topic of sex and consent. She finds that the age of becoming sexually active has fallen. Nevertheless, lack of conversation and education around sex and consent continues to muddle the minds of Indian teens. For example, a 14-year-old boy and girl were caught having sex in school and were expelled. The same punishment was accorded to eight affluent 13-year-old Mumbai boys whose WhatsApp chats about rape and violence were exposed. 

Ms Bhargava questions whether the same sentence should be “meted out to two consenting minors and those belligerently discussing rape”. She finds that lack of conversation around sex, easy access to porn, and a pre-existing patriarchal culture make India’s kids more susceptible to conflate sex with violence. Ms Bhargava cites Dr Samir Parikh, a psychiatrist, who states that “in a country where marital rape is not criminalised, where domestic violence between the four walls of homes remains unreported more than it is revealed, viewing porn without adequate support could influence a teen into thinking that sex is about the male ego.”

Ms Bhargava asserts that more open communication needs to occur — and severely lacking in most urban Indian homes. Contrary to popular belief, punishment might not always be thesolution. She gives readers straightforward insights on adolescents exploring the world of sex.

Her findings are refreshing to read and a powerful reminder that India still has miles to go when it comes to progressive social change.

Ms Bhargava’s findings are a much-needed reality check for Indian parents. However, there is a lack of intersectionality in her analysis. Although she clarifies from the get-go that the book is about wealthy urban Indian kids and indulges in a surface level class and gender analysis, the book begs for a more nuanced approach.

Ms Bhargava continually reiterates that the privilege of these kids might be a “curse.” It is worth wondering whether 88 million Indians living below India’s poverty line would agree with her. Moreover, caste and its violent grip on India does not even make a guest appearance throughout the book.

That said, the comprehensive coverage of upper caste wealthy Indian teens’ lives — eating disorders, bullying, sextortion, and many others —  makes the book a must-read for anyone raising teens in urban India. Yet, Ms Bhargava clarifies that “this is not a book on parenting” and recognises that “very few people welcome advice” and she seems to intentionally avoid a didactic or judgemental tone. Her witty and conversational writing style invites readers to engage with her. Any parent is bound to leave the book with a clearer understanding of India’s urban teenagers’ secret lives and more empathy for their children.

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