It’s hard being a 14 year old girl on Facebook

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It was winter of 2017. My close family member was preparing for her secondary level examinations. She was good in studies. As the secondary level examination was near, School had started extra classes. The study routine was very exhausting. She was studying hard as we expected good results. I was also in my college at that time. We could not meet for enough time; even we stayed in the same flat. She went to school early in the morning, before I woke up and came home at 10 PM. I used to pick her myself from the school. As, she came really late, I did not talk much and wanted her to take rest, to be well prepared for the next day. After some days, I noticed a pattern in her behavior. Once open and cheerful, she started becoming secretive and tensed. I talked to her teachers and her teachers had also noticed change in her behavior. She was suffering and I had no idea what was happening and what I needed to do. It was draining her physically, mentally and emotionally while I was feeling helpless. I decided to intervene. Initially, reluctant to talk, she denied having any problem but later she broke down. I was hard for her as well as me.

She had an account on facebook. Her friend used her facebook account to talk to some other guy. She did not want to disappoint her friend, so she gave her facebook account easily. Her friend even used her personal mobile number. Her friend had some dispute with the guy. They broke up. But I think the guy’s ego kicked in. He started sending messages on facebook and missed calls on mobile. Initially she responded casually, but later it became worse. The guy had found a victim. He started demanding pictures and video call. He started harassing her if she could not be available online at the time he stated. As the school timing was exhausting, she could not keep up with his timings, which led the boy to scold and abuse her. She started to suffer. She could not share her problems with anyone, due to fear. We are brought up in a society where we think that always women are the culprit. She had an assumption that even she would tell us the truth, we would not believe. She kept silent. The boy used this assumption well and started to threaten her to receive calls and if she would be unable, he will miscall to an extent that everyone in the family will know.

I didn’t know what to say. I tried to assure her that it’s ok to make mistakes. Every one of us makes mistakes. I shared my own mistakes. I told her not to worry and start everything new. She told me to take back her mobile but I didn’t. I left it with her. Instead of running from the problems, we should face it. Changing mobile number would have given that boy an advantage, as he would have found a clue that she is more fearful now and he could have changed his tactics. I told her to receive the call on speaker and deny respectfully. He refused and started using foul words. She disconnected the call. He called again, I received this time and the boy hung up the phone. For some days the boys didn’t call. After some day he did some 35 missed calls. I called back but he continuously hung up. I also didn’t give up and called continuously. After some time, he received the call, by his voice; I could sense that the boy was not more than 14–16 years old. I told him that if he doesn’t stop calling on this number, I would take legal action. I gave some examples of current news about cyber crime and the boy hung up. He never called back again. She focused on her studies and latter topped in the secondary level examinations.

After a year, in summer of 2018, I went to teach in a public school in a rural community of Parsa district as a Teach for Nepal fellow. It was a secondary level school with more than 500 students. I taught from class 6 to 10 which consisted of students of age range 10–16. Most of the students were female. Most of them were weak in studies. They did not even spoke inside the classroom. They were only vocal with their friends, but not spoke much outside of their friend circle. I thought that maybe we are new, so they may be reluctant to speak, and after some time it will fade, but it continued. Their behavior did not change. Once I was scrolling facebook and accidentally stumbled upon one of the students on facebook. I found that each of them were on facebook. Each of them had 1000+ friends. Some of them had reached the 5000 friends limit on facebook. Some of them had two to four accounts which they handled simultaneously and sometimes parallel. I could only imagine the amount of time they spent on facebook and amount of mental pressure, it was building on them. I could easily assume how the social network was impacting such young innocent students. Some of the students had eloped and the reason was people they met on facebook.

I could not connect with them on this matter. I knew something was happening but didn’t know how to start to resolve it. I had my personal experience in matter related to the social network. By trying to talk to the students, I could not get proper insights. To know exactly what was happening, I needed to think like a teenager. Without knowing the mentality of the students, what they were thinking, how they were feeling, I could not assist them. It was necessary to experience what they were going through. First, I looked at the options that could be tried for this cause. After some options, I decided to make a facebook account posing as a 14 year old boy. I operated this account for a couple of weeks but I could not get the desired response. I deactivated the old account and made new one, this time as a 14 year old girl. I did not use any original photo as a profile picture, but used photo of BTS, a Korean band as my profile picture. Edited my bio to look as a 14 year old, liked some of the meme pages, joined some groups, and hid my phone number. Sent some random friend requests and the facebook did the job with tons of suggestions as a friend. I added all of them. The adventure had started.

Never Ending Friend Requests

The first thing I experienced was the large amount of friend requests. Receiving friend requests from strangers is cringe in itself and imagine getting those in hundreds daily. I could easily cross 1000 friend in three days. My friend list was full of men from all age group, mostly teenagers and men from foreign employment. After couple of week my 5000 friend limit was met. Still I was getting a lot of friend requests, now I needed to make a page. But I didn’t take that risk. I got to check some of the profiles of people who sent me friend request, they were either in school or working at low level jobs. Some of them were working in gulf countries. It took me a decade to meet the 1000 friends in my list and here in my undercover account, I easily reached 5000 friends within a couple of weeks. It was not hard to figure out that I was getting such large amount of friend requests, just because I was a girl. I did not receive friend requests from men who were in college, working professionals or were educated. I believe most of the people who sent friend request were looking for some fun which reflected in the messages that they sent.

Enormous Chat Messages

Instantly after accepting the friend requests, a message came in. People were so eager to talk that I don’t know, are they online 24 hours? minute after accepting the friend request, they would send a message. Getting messages from hundreds of people at a same time can make anyone nervous. How can someone reply and talk to all of those people. Even you try to talk to single person, the message notifications won’t stop. Every time I logged into the account, there were messages from a lot of people. It was really fun to see different style of messaging from different people. Some would just say Hi, some would send stickers, some would send pictures with love quotes, and some would send funny videos, while some would send tragedy messages. I received a lot of songs and one liner in Nepali, Hindi and English as well. Most of them would act caring, loving and supportive. Some would share about how they got deceived by their former loved ones and were now searching for new one. Some would try to act funny. Overall, the message amount was so enormous that I could not remember clearly all of them.

Instant Love Proposals

It was really amazing that the number of friend request that I received was directly proportional to the amount of love and marriage proposals. They would talk as if they will take care of me the whole life and provide me whatever I need. Most of the people would propose after talking for few days but some of them were very fast, they would not wait for a day, as soon as I accepted the friend request, after some informal talks, they would propose. Some of them would ask if I had a boyfriend or not while some of them would not care and requested to be in the relationship. They would talk in a way as if I am the only purpose in their life. Some of them would send pictures of money, big house, a bike or a car and claimed to be theirs. They were ready to do anything for me. They would constantly tell me that I could be a Queen; they would love me, support me and make my life easy. I imagine a girl in a family living in normal conditions can easily fall prey to these types of people. Some of them would even try to visit personally even if they were physically at a distance.

Request for Pictures and Video Call

After talking for few days, they would request for a real photo. They would also send their pictures, a lot of them, with fancy clothes, posing with a vehicle or in a beautiful surrounding. They would try to impress by sending their pictures. After that they would ask of mine, most of the time I replied that I didn’t have a good mobile phone to take pictures and some of them would offer to buy me one if I accept their proposal. Some of them would drop out or either block me if I didn’t send them the pictures. Another group of people would constantly urge for video call. They wanted to show me their lifestyle. Some of them would want me to strip in front of the camera. I even received offer that they would send balance on my mobile for video call. They would send balance and money only on the condition that I would show my private parts to them. How easily they would talk in such manner, even if they knew I was just 14 year old. Maybe a girl, whose family could not meet her demands, can go this way. There are a number of people who want to exploit and they know a lot of techniques.

Access to Adult Content

Facebook claims that its social network is free from adult content. But it was easily being shared on timeline, pages and groups. Anyone could have easy access to that content either in the form of text, images or videos. Some guys would even fill my inbox with such images and videos. A lot of groups and pages would share videos which easily showed on my timeline. Clicking to the source of those videos, would take me to thousands of other videos with such adult content. There are a lot of pages that post such images and videos on a daily basis. It was widely shared among the people on my friend list. When I clicked to Facebook Watch, along with other video content, I could find a lot of videos with adult content. What kind of impressions these content were making on the mind of those children, is hard to imagine. In a country like ours where such things are considered as a taboo, it becomes even hard for those children to express their views. I blocked some of the people who sent me adult content in messages, but again another one would send. It wouldn’t stop, along with messages with foul languages and requests would flood my inbox. If I was a real 14 year old, I would have broken down.

With all of those distractions and mental pressure how can students focus on their studies? Each of them had some kind of family problem in their house so they spent their most of time on the social media platform, and it is not hard to think that they would encounter someone who would be able to captivate them. There were eight instances of girls eloping with people they met on facebook, in a couple of years I stayed there as a fellow. It was challenging to me make students focus on the content of their books while lots of things were going in their mind. As now I had access to this myself, I could better relate with their problems. When I was a teenager, we did not have access to such social media, but if I had, I would have not been able to cope up. How the teenagers of today are coping with all of this is really appreciate able. They keep on smiling despite facing a lot of harassment online. I believe that psychological sessions are required to ease the effects of the online cases and make students focus on their studies and career.

Research Design Consultant I Imagineer I Growth Hacker I Design Thinking Enthusiast