SMS, Facebook And Teenage School Girls
By Sujata Gamage
On Women’s Day I got the opportunity to address more than 600 senior secondary students in a government girls’ school in a suburb of Colombo. Arriving there, I felt humbled in the presence of the dedicated principal and her staff who have worked hard to provide a well-maintained and peaceful environment for 3000 plus kids who come to that school every day. The school was spotless because the 5S methods is followed to all five letters, and, as a teacher explained, there is no staff room for teachers because they are required to be with students during their work day.
Since I was given 90 minutes or more for my speech I had ample time to share with students three short topics – Changing demographics, Continuing advances of technology and the Lajja and Biya (or shame and fear) concept in our society, and link all three to their future as women. In my introduction I also shared with them my love for science, star-gazing (in the sky) and reading when I was their age and how those passions have sustained me through the years.
As for the three concepts, the essence of my argument was that we are aging as a society and by 2017 Sri Lanka is forecasted to begin the period when we will have more dependents than providers in society as a whole. In the past, when society seemed unsustainable, science and technology — industrial and chemical — have come to the rescue, one might argue. The newer technologies, information, communication, biological or other technologies-to-come may save us this time too. It is important for young girls to be aware of these demographics and be on top of technologies because when they leave school they will make up 50% of the workforce that will have to work harder to sustain a larger pool of dependents.
I touched on technologies such as mobiles, laptops, internet, Facebook etc., and judging from the questions asked later, they had some burning issues about those. I decided to add Lajja and Biya as a third concepts because Lajja and Biya can keep young women unnecessarily tied-down.
Biya or Fear is built into all living things. We are naturally conditioned to fear anything that will cause death or bodily harm. Lajja is a concept which is social in nature and it stops us doing things that harm our social relationships. Dr. Kumari Jayawardena and other scholars, argue that the concept of lajja and biya are deeply ingrained in Asian societies, in Sri Lanka in particular. Here in Sri Lanka the terms are very much part of everyday language with girls being regularly admonished to grow up with lajja and biya. As for undue lajja, I gave an example of an older woman who hid a severe condition regarding her womb because she felt ashamed to discuss such matters with anybody. I did not explicate further but said that each generation and each community should define its own notions of lajja and biya, discarding the bad and taking the good from the old notions.
At the end, students were invited to write their questions so that they could present those anonymously. Among the 25 or so questions collected was a good range that included — what is a good lajja-biya and what is good, what books to read, how do you know a good book, how to publish online, how to find time to read books, can you talk more about chemical technology, astronomy, nanotechnology or architecture and the existence of aliens etc., why do our parents and teachers not let us use the internet or the mobile, is Facebook bad for us etc.
Most questions I could answer but, obviously, I could not define norms of lajja and biya for their setting and I could not tell them much about the mobile and the internet besides that they should obey school rules while in school and talk to their parents about what to do at home. Knowing that most parents in that community would not be too familiar with ICTs themselves and would be naturally suspicious, I stressed the importance of earning the trust of their parents and not breaking that trust.
After I came home I gave a little more thought to the issue of access to internet and mobiles for older teens still in school. They are tricky issues for both parents and teachers. It is reasonable to ban the use of mobiles during school hours, but should they be banned altogether? With today’s busy schedules for both parents and children, being able to connect to each other as needed is essential. Should children be given access to the internet during school hours, when in all likelihood they would be going to social network sites to do anything but school work?
I asked a friend who has a daughter in a leading Buddhist school and a son in an international school. Her stated policy is very clear. Her two children, one 14 and the other almost 16, are given mobiles so that she can contact them after school hours. They should not use the phone during school hours. Calling or sending sms’ to friends after school is discouraged because they have ample time to interact with them after school. In practice both children have acquired Facebook accounts pretending to be over 18. The boy is constantly sending long sms messages to friends but the girl prefers Facebook. Happily, none of these are critical issues and the family is doing fine except for occasional crises when grades are not up to expectation etc.
I asked another lady who runs her own business and hails from a suburb known for its hela tendencies. I am her client but she generally seeks out my opinion on various issues. As for internet access she never consulted me and when I asked her about her policy her reply was a firm no. Until her children complete their A/Ls they will not be given any internet access. I don’t think the children are given mobile phones either. The children are yet to complete their O/Ls. I doubt whether she will be able to stick to her policy as her children get older.
Boyfriends is another issue that is similar issue-wise with technology. It seems to me that there are two extremes, strict and relaxed regarding technology or boy-friends. Most schools outside of elite Colombo schools are usually not co-ed and the social norms and facilities are such that they have to follow the strict extreme which means no phones, no mobiles and no boyfriends. For international schools which are typically co-ed with more liberal social norms, adopting a relaxed policy is easier. Others can adopt an in-between policy, particularly, if internet access can be provided and the curriculum can de designed with activities that require internet access.
• No mobiles
• No internet
• No boyfriends
• Keep your mobile on ‘silent’ and don’t get caught sending sms while class is on
• Do whatever on the internet but submit your work on time
• Boyfriends ok, but no hanky panky in school, if mixed school
In schools which adopt a strict policy, mobiles can be confiscated but teachers should not be reading the SMS messages contained in those. A suicide in a leading school is said to have been caused by the revelation of contents in a confiscated cell phone.
We need to always remember that what is seen as harmless by a child can seem obscene to an adult. Studious as I was in school I got caught passing a note to another student. Reading the note the teacher thought I was being obscene. I was just telling my friend that I saw this Brazilian circus where this white woman climbed on the stomach of a white man and did some amazing things.
It was true! It was the first time we had seen a live circus with white people and what I described was some acrobatic act that caught my imagination. I don’t know what notes were exchanged by the ‘naughty’ girls in the class because they never came my way. Whatever the content, it is better for teachers not to read these, but, confiscate and destroy the notes.
Situations at home too can be handled using one of the two extremes or with something in-between. Parents may even have to decide case by case for each child. The key issue is the trust between you and the child. You can adopt a relaxed policy if you trust your child and if you are comfortable with the technology or the boyfriend issue. You should adopt a strict policy if you do not trust your child or fear for your child and you are not comfortable with the technology or with the idea of boyfriends while in school.
My own two girls got through their late teens under relaxed policies regarding boyfriends, the internet and mobiles, and we are better as a family for the experience, I believe. I wish for a day when all families can be more relaxed about these matters and spend more time discussing any problems that arise, rather than spend energy on prohibition and policing.