Every day, after she gets back home from school, Stuti Sukhani logs on to Moodle, a virtual learning platform used by The Shri Ram School. There she looks up the business of the next few days—assembly timings, swimming-class schedules, and the other important appointments of school life, not to mention the homework due the following day. On Moodle’s class discussion board, she also chats with her classmates and teachers.
For 12-year-old Stuti, born around the same time the Internet started becoming commonly available in India, a large part of life is lived online. The Internet has spread as fast as Stuti has grown, becoming so intertwined with her life that it’s now difficult for her to imagine a life without it.
After she’s done with Moodle, Stuti potters around for a while, checking her email and downloading songs and games from the Disney website. Finally it’s time to get down to homework—and most of the research for her homework is done online as well.
“Class assignments,” says Stuti, with earnest enthusiasm, “come with a list of reference websites.” Wikipedia is a favourite, having replaced libraries stocked with heavy, dusty encyclopedias. Word files and spreadsheets have eradicated the dog-eared notebooks of a previous generation, and assignments, once they’re done, are uploaded, not submitted.
Work and play: Stuti Sukhani, 12, with her mother, Anu, in her study room. Most of the research for her homework is done online. Priyanka Parashar/Mint
It all sounds like a lot of time spent online. “Forty-five minutes,” Stuti says, grinning. “More like an hour-and-a-half,” interjects her mother Anu Sukhani.
Stuti is hardly an exception. In its India Online 2010 survey, the market research firm JuxtConsult found that a little over 10% of Indian Internet users fall between the ages of 13 and 18. Of this group, 31.8% say they’ve been using the Internet for five to six years already.
Stuti’s introduction to the Internet was in class III, when her father set up a Yahoo email account for her. (Like so many others, she has now moved to Gmail.) The account was created for the convenience of family members from around the country, who wanted to write to her.
In retrospect, however, her mother feels that it might have been too early. “It was done under pressure,” says Anu, sounding almost remorseful. “Once you give them that space, there’s no going back.”
Stuti took to the Internet easily, her mother recalls, and somehow that didn’t prove surprising. Computer classes in school, which had started in class I, had already equipped Stuti to do more than surf the Web. “We were being taught Word, Photoshop and PowerPoint,” Stuti says.
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Teachers encouraged their students to put the Internet to different uses. In class V, therefore, Stuti was part of ShriCast, an experimental podcast of the school’s junior editorial board, which dwelled on the week’s highlights at school.
That was two years ago. Around the same time, social networking and micro-blogging sites such as Facebook, Orkut and Twitter had started becoming popular in India. Those websites, Stuti says, gesturing towards her mother, “were and remain out of bounds”.
Anu, like most parents, has concerns about what her daughter is accessing online, and the people she’s interacting with. Limiting access to these sites is one of the ways of controlling that. Not letting her use a mobile phone, except when she’s travelling, is another.
At home, Stuti uses a common computer. It doesn’t have any parental filters, but Anu keeps a “broad eye” on the sites her daughter is visiting. “She knows the kind of sites that she’s allowed to visit,” Anu says. “I trust her judgement.”
Stuti’s school, for its part, doesn’t allow students to use social networking sites until they’re 13. “Our vice-principal announced in assembly that since Facebook requires users to be at least 13 years old, we should adhere to that,” she says. According to Stuti, most of her classmates adhere quite strictly to that instruction; after all, it’s “only a question of waiting for a year”.
Anu dithers about whether Stuti will be allowed on to Facebook after a year. “I’d like to delay it as much as possible,” she says, but she already seems to accept its inevitability.
In the meantime, Stuti has been using the Internet for interesting purposes. A few months ago, as part of an extra-curricular creative writing course, she did a project on a “fashion statement from before the 1800s”. Stuti chose Egyptian head dresses. “It took some looking,” she says, “but I got a lot of information on the Net.”
Earlier this year, her mother says, Stuti also used the Internet to research and plan the family’s trip to Disneyland. “She’d even decided which rides we would take,” says Anu, laughing.
Do Stuti’s online interactions with friends lead to meeting them less frequently offline? “No, I don’t think so,” says Anu. Neither has the Internet affected her playing sports, which happens in school anyway. But her use of the Internet for research does mean, according to Anu, that Stuti “misses out on all the tangential things that you learn when you rummage through books in a library”.
In an effort to find a happy middle ground, Stuti’s parents bought her an Encyclopedia Britannica CD a few years ago. “After a while, we realized that she wasn’t using it. Even inserting the CD seemed to be too much effort,” Anu says, “The Internet was just easier.”
It’s a delicate balance for Anu. The line between protecting Stuti and shackling her curiosity, encouraging her to interact with peers and limiting her time online, is a fine one.
Luckily, Stuti is an avid reader, and she also enjoys writing. Anu says she’s thinking of setting up a blog for her. So what is she reading at the moment? “Chicken Soup for the Preteen Soul,” says Stuti promptly. In the Internet age, it’s a delicate balance for everyone.