This journalist-turned-author’s book navigates the lives of teens and their addiction to social media, games, and substances

A new book by journalist turned author Jyotsna Mohan Bhargava explores the lives of urban teens and their struggles with addiction to substances, social media, peer pressure, bullying and more.

When it comes to eye-opening books in the world of non-fiction, this one is a must-read.

Stoned, Shamed, Depressed: An Explosive Account of the Secret Lives of India's Teens by journalist-turned-author Jyotsna Mohan Bhargava, treads a path where not many writers have not attempted to go. Her book investigates the secret lives of India’s urban teens and their struggles with substance, social media, gaming, peer pressure, bullying, body shaming, and the resultant physical and mental health issues.

Jyotsna chronicles their journey from childhood to adulthood – and the tumultuous teenage years in between weaving accounts of teens, teachers, parents and child psychologists to understand the school-life of teens in modern day India.

In a conversation with HerStory, Jyotsna throws light on the extensive research that went towards writing the book, why it is not a parenting manual and the positive aspects of the teens she interviewed. 

HerStory (HS) What led you to research and write a book on such an explosive subject?

Jyotsna Mohan Bhargava (JMB): I think it was two things. Firstly, I was increasingly baffled with the lack of attention that was being given to serious issues that involved our children. They made the headlines - whether it was suicides after an examination result or due to the desperation of gaming- and then forty-eight hours later they disappeared from public memory. Look at the Boislockerroom controversy, so much furore and now nothing. It is not like these issues have gone away and it made me wonder why we aren’t talking more about them? Secondly, it was the fascination with seeing children as young as six or seven with an iPad or a phone. I wanted to dig deeper and see where it leads them and what I found was not always a pretty picture. Having said that, I maintain that a gadget harnessed responsibly at an older age can have much going for it.

HS: How long did it take for you to research and bring out the book?

JMB: For the last two years or so, I had already started writing short pieces on a couple of these issues that were bothering me. So my research had begun then and my sources were fresh when I started the book. But I did encounter a few parents who had a change of heart mid-way and changed their story. For instance, someone who told me about her daughter being a bully completely denied it later, another whose daughter had body shaming issues and had openly spoken about it refused to confront it later, but I think that is par for the course. Uncomfortable issues in our society have those reactions. After all the research , many which remained on-going, it took me a year to write the book. In fact even know people hear about it and say, if we had known we would have shared some stories.

HS: As you rightly put it, it's not a book on how to/how not to parent? What did you actually seek to convey through the book?

JMB: My attempt has been to paint a realistic picture of school campuses in several urban Indian cities because as a society we do not like to confront things that don’t fit our thinking- whether it is slut-shaming or mental depression and all these are happening in our schools. My aim is to show the mirror, and hope that it helps at least a few families to make an informed choice going forward because even those parents who are on the ball are struggling, the social media environment has thrown all conventional thinking out of the park. I hope to also give schools some food for thought, because they also need to come out of the traditional classroom and embrace a different way of teaching.

 HS: The book is largely based on teens/incidents in Delhi? Was there any particular reason for it or do you think the teens in the capital are more affected by complexities owing to different factors like unlimited wealth, unrestrained freedom and social mores?

JMB: Actually, that is not completely true. While Delhi and the National Capital Region have been a big focus, this book has equal doses of children in other urban cities like Mumbai, Bangalore and even Chandigarh. In fact, gadget addiction was a big issue in teens in Bengaluru. While Delhi has this image of the crass North-Indian wealth, the struggle is universal amongst the privileged. The fight today is for an identity in a social media bubble and for that just an Instagram account on a smartphone is enough.  

HS: You also pointed out that social media plays a huge role in affecting the lives of children, mostly in adverse ways? What incidents shocked you, in this regard?

JMB: Several, to be honest. The ease with which accounts are hacked and sold, the nude leaks through snapchat and yes the pain-imaginary or otherwise of this generation which cuts its wrist at the drop of a hat. There have been several incidents like these that caught me completely unaware, so even If I thought things were bad, I was still taken aback by the intensity of the actions. The urgency to be someone in cyber space and the anonymity it allows is what is dictating a lot of behaviour even in middle-school.

HS: Was it difficult speaking to the teens mentioned in the book, even on conditions of anonymity. How did you identify who you wanted to speak with?

JMB: Actually, they were very easy to speak with and therein I hope, lies the message. This generation does want conversations, and they also want our society to know that they are different so that we can manage our expectations accordingly. They may be different but that doesn’t make them wrong either. I started with children who I know personally and then the net just widened. For instance, I had three different children narrating one case study to me and you realise the reach and of these incidents through social media and it makes you wonder, if we were in their place how would we have handled so much pressure?

HS: In a world full of blurred boundaries, what are the positive aspects you found while meeting teens/telling their stories through the book?

JMB: I found them to be a generation that is very clear in its thinking and aware of pretty much everything. I spoke to some very intelligent children who are so brilliant that you finish the interview and remain in awe. You realise that their exposure is such that they are capable of exceptional things and some are already doing it. Children talking on platforms about body shaming or gaming addiction - there is some remarkable work being done that we would never have thought of when we were that young. What takes them down though is peer pressure.

HS: Even though it's not a parenting book, what are the important takeaways for parents?

JMB: For today’s children, it is all about their peers. Everything their friends say is sacrosanct and they will not snitch on their peers. For the parents, conversations is the only way forward. Also if your child is small, there is still time, try not giving unrestricted freedom on the gadgets, leave alone a smartphone. Reversing these decisions later when they become the norm is not easy.

HS: Can I tell us a little about yourself…

JMB: I belong to a family of journalists and my family started the newspaper Pratap in Lahore in 1919 - the year of the Jallianwala massacre - and post-partition the family moved to Jalandhar in Punjab where I grew up. I can’t recollect a time when I didn’t want to be a journalist, the only difference was that while I had presumed it would be print like my family, I landed up in TV news instead.

My first job was in BiTV and it was the ideal job anyone could have aspired for. It was a channel ahead of it’s time but full of creative inspiring people who all started a journey together. And then I joined NDTV where I covered diverse beats like crime and sports and where I stayed for fifteen years, and met people who are now family. Over the past two-three years I have gone back to writing columns and articles (rather a long detour to print given that my first piece in a newspaper was published at the age of 17) and then the book happened. 


Edited by Megha Reddy