“The vast majority does not get any kind of sex education”
How do teenagers use the internet in low- and middle-income countries?
Well, there is this myth that they use technology to mainly lift themselves from poverty, gaining skills, acquiring professionally relevant knowledge and even starting small firms. The unspoken implication of this superhero story is that they are expected to escape the so called backward mindset of their communities in order to become more like “us” in Europe and North America. They are teenagers, however, and adolescence is not a period of self-perfection. It is a period of self-exploration. Teenagers need to find out who they are, where they belong and what they want to do with their lives. It is a search for meaning, companionship, engagement and entertainment. Unlike children, they do not simply trust the guidance of their parents, but want to find out things for themselves. The internet allows them to do that, and it also offers the necessary sense of privacy. Don’t forget that most of them do not have a room of their own. Many live in one room homes with their parents, siblings and maybe grandparents.
So the screen of the mobile phone becomes their tiny private space?
Exactly, and especially for girls who typically cannot go out and hang around with friends as they please. However, access to the technology itself can be quite restricted (see Ipsita Sapra in the Magazine section of D+C/E+Z e-paper in 2021/10). Low-income communities in developing countries tend to have an attitude one could sum up as “good girls don’t go on Facebook”. Being online for girls comes with high reputational risks. Social media is about unstructured time, but female teenagers in developing countries have a lot of household chores to do, so parents keep asking whether they do not have more important things to do than loiter around on social media. Families worry about their reputation and monitor daughters’ behaviour closely, typically with the support of the entire neighbourhood and faith community. But nonetheless, the internet and social media give teenage girls a relative sense of freedom that their mothers did not have, if they are able to get and stay online in a safe and anonymous manner.
But how is that possible if they don’t have a device to access the internet?
Well, some do have a mobile phone, and many use devices that belong to a parent or a sibling. In order to protect their reputations, they often act online as though they were some kind of moral vigilantes, shaming loose and immoral rich girls who post pictures of themselves. To some extent, they reinforce the grip of conservative values that way, but at the same time, they are taking a close look at what is going on in places where the strict rules of their tightly knit community do not apply. We must not confuse what they post on social media with what they really think. They need to send the right kind of virtue signals to continue being online. Of course, many go online incognito. Another popular option is to invent a different persona which allows them to state their views truthfully without being identifiable.
Instagram can hurt girls’ self-esteem because they do not feel beautiful enough. Does that affect the girls you are talking about too?
They have other bigger issues to worry about. The point is that they neither want to show themselves nor be seen. To a large extent, they accept the norms of their community, but they are also curious and want to look around. One girl told me that her parents said she could have a mobile phone of her own after the marriage they were arranging. She reached out to her future husband and asked him to get one for her so they could get to know one another better. He agreed under the condition that he would have access to all her personal accounts so he could check what she was up to online. She told me that this arrangement was fair, because he was paying, he was running a risk himself and she would eventually be his wife.
Does online pornography matter?
Oh yes, Pornhub has become the world’s sex-education agency with the widest reach, though it was obviously designed for a totally different purpose, which is to make money by stimulating men’s fantasies. I do not mean to celebrate internet porn, but neither do I want to negate its usefulness among the global youth today. Imagine you are a young teenager in a developing country and you notice that you feel attracted to your own sex. Your local community will make you believe that you are a sick outsider because no one feels that way. By contrast, the abundance of gay porn on the internet will tell you that lots of people must actually have homosexual feelings.
Porn distorts body images just like fashion slideshows do, and, as you said, it is basically about fantasies. Don’t teenagers need some advice on what porn is and does?
Yes, they do, but the vast majority does not get any kind of sex education. And it is actually about much more than sex. In many cultures, adolescent girls are not told anything meaningful about their bodies (see Mahwish Gul in the Focus section D+C/E+Z e-Paper 2020/04). They do not know about menstruation until it happens to them. Everything is considered shameful. Girls don’t have a clear understanding of how a pregnancy starts or what diseases are transmitted sexually. Sex is linked to pleasure, but girls are not supposed to experience it. “Good” girls are not even allowed to show any interest at all. It is common for a girl to worry that she will soon have a baby only because she dared to kiss a boy. This kind of ignorance causes a lot of suffering, but is very hard to tackle. At this point, many only get information from online porn, which is obviously insufficient sex education.
In October, Facebook had a blackout for a few hours, and WhatsApp and Instagram, which belong to Facebook, were affected too. Western teenagers were shocked. What was the response elsewhere?
People were not overly concerned as they are worried about incidents far worse. For one thing, utilities like power supply or water supply tend to be less reliable in developing countries. Moreover, people have become used to governments switching off apps or the internet for political reasons. Nigeria suspended Twitter for months. India denied Kashmir access to the internet for a long time. Local blackouts are not unusual.
To what extent do Facebook and other social-media platforms drive radicalisation among young people in Asia, Africa and Latin America? The latest whistle-blower revealed that Facebook algorithms amplify anger and hate to keep people engaged.
Well, a lot of what teenagers do online is entirely apolitical. But extremist forces are obviously using the internet, and especially social media, for purposes of agitation and mobilisation. We need an independent and global auditing body to ensure people get valid and truthful information. This job must not be left to solely nation-states or tech companies because social media transcend borders. So far, the platform providers pretend they are mere intermediaries and not publishers who bear responsibility for what they publish. In truth, the impact they have on people’s lives far exceeds the impact of traditional publishers. Social media have become essential infrastructure with a bearing on the common good. One reason is the large network effect they have. Another problem is that users share so much personal information. Nonetheless, we allow profit-driven companies to make many important decisions. Elected policymakers should step up, take responsibility and push for global cooperation. They are shirking their duties. Only blaming internet billionaires like Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg when something goes wrong misses the point.
But he is not beyond blame. People like him consistently do what they can to escape regulation.
Sure, but the conventional media did not handle Facebook’s latest whistle-blowing scandal well. Once again, they found fault with Zuckerberg, instead of focusing on broader issues on how to foster a sustainable global data governance plan that requires policymakers to cooperate and consolidate at the global level. On the upside, policymakers from divergent political beliefs share this common concern – finally some common ground.
Payal Arora is a digital anthropologist and full professor at the Erasmus School of Philosophy in Rotterdam. She is the author of “The next billion users” (Cambridge, Mass. 2019: Harvard University Press).
Correction, 31 October, 10:30 Frankfurt time: We have changed the headline to emphasise the need for sex eduction. The original one read: "Online porn is insufficient sex education", which missed the point.