The most common function of a teenage guy’s girlfriend is to be someone who comforts you when you cry," says Tanay Chadda, 15, Don’s Deepu and Slumdog Millionaire’s Jamal junior. Chadda has spent the last three years working on a film script on the secret lives of teenagers, interviewing teens from cities, even NRIs in London and New York. “The average teenager is trying to be five years older than he actually is. At the end of the day, everything a teenager does stems from the need to be ‘cool’ and ‘different’," he says.

The class X student from Dhirubhai Ambani International School, Mumbai, describes a world where friends are “scoring home runs off their girlfriends", where teens don’t always use condoms the first time “to know how it feels", where AX shirts, Louis Vuitton and Hermès belts and Hugo Boss wallets are school fare, and where Facebook comments can result in depression.

Market-driven angst

Teen talk: (clockwise from above) Sara D’Souza, 18, says drugs and sex come too easy; Aayushi Sharma, 16, wants to make it in a man’s world; and Aarti Chhikara, 14, would like to be thought of as a ‘cute 18’.

Chadda explains how teenagers worry about their image. “I have friends who work out to get six-pack abs so their profile pictures on Facebook can look good. When they upload it and it doesn’t receive enough comments, or when it receives negative comments, they’ve sunk into a depression." The ad world, reality TV and movie sets are filled with tales of teen models and actors pushed to sensuality by over-ambitious parents.

As Thylane Lena-Rose Blondeau, 10, pouts from the cover of a recent issue of French Vogue in all-too-adult make-up, sensuous designer wear and stilettos, closer home it’s Malvika Hoon and Aarti Chhikara, the 15- and 14-year-olds, respectively, who were recently profiled by Hindustan Times (published by HT Media Ltd, that also publishes Mint). Both teens were posing as mini-adults in advertising shoots; both are symbolic of their grown-too-soon generation.

Chhikara, a class X student at Springdales School, Dhaula Kuan, New Delhi, sees being older as being more sensuous. “They could have said I looked 18, instead of 20. I have a good male following, who might think I’ve been lying to them. I don’t look so old," she says. Her event-manager mother, Dolly, says people who say Chhikara has been forced into behaving older are jealous they haven’t had the opportunity. Even the negative publicity is welcome. “It gives us status," she explains over the phone. “In Delhi, this is how society is." Hoon will only speak on the promise that her photographs, in which her cleavage dwarfs her face, are featured prominently.

Valued differently

Thirteen is the new 18 as children pick careers sooner, achieve faster, earn more and cope less than their parents ever did at that age. M. Renuka, associate professor at the JSS Medical College, Mysore, documented depression rates in Mysore using the Center for Epidemiological Studies— Depression Scale for Children (CES-DC). And tabulated a whopping 93% rate of depression in teens aged up to 16 for the year 2010. Roli Srivastava, secretary, Adolescent Society of Kanpur, says it is important for parents to keep in mind that the emotional needs of today’s adolescents are greater than those of adults. While everyone wants to be appreciated and loved, it’s the only feeling that keeps teens going in an increasingly alienating world, which is why teens seek sexual partners early.

Oral sex, Srivastava says, is popular because children believe it keeps them virginal and safe from pregnancy. In a paper on “Love and the Sex Life of your Teenagers" in New Adolescent Today—a special issue by the Indian Academy of Paediatrics, published in May— Srivastava writes: “Today’s teenagers are under enormous pressure not only from their hormones and peers, but also from a sexualized pop culture that bombards them with explicit, erotic images on the TV, movies, music videos and Internet. It’s normal for kids to experiment and enact what they’ve seen or heard." Straight talking and connecting is the only way to get through to them, she says.

Meanwhile, teens are being forced to explore where they fit in a world they don’t feel equipped to handle. Nasreen (name changed on request) is a 15-year-old Muslim girl from a conservative family in Mumbai. A hurdler, she has been taking part in the National Games for over seven years. While achievement is important, sport has also given her the space to explore her first personal and sexual freedoms. For years she has watched her classmates date, drink and experiment. “When girls from equally conservative families get boyfriends, you start to think, ‘is something wrong with me?’" she says.

Her best friend Aayushi Sharma, a year older, and a shotputter at the National Games level, is the only girl in her extended family. Sharma describes herself as “loud; I walk and talk like a boy". She is often the one to ask a boy out. It’s her life mission to prove that whatever boys can do, girls can too. Both measure themselves against peers, against TV soaps, films, songs and books that talk of young romance and constantly feel inadequate, despite medals and top scores.

Sex, alcohol and drugs are rampant, say teens, especially in homes where both parents work, and apartments are empty. Sara D’Souza, 18, a student in a Mumbai city college, describes the scene: “It’s so easy. Drugs are available at 100 and almost everyone has an empty apartment to go home and have sex in. My parents are pretty cool with my boyfriend, but they would flip if they knew I had experimented with drugs."

Kirti Narain, principal of Jai Hind College, Mumbai, says there is little colleges and schools can do to restrain heavily influenced teens. “They step out of uniforms and come into a life of freedom. Some take advantage of it in terms of the clothes they wear, others seek the thrill of dating and sex. Most can’t cope."

A possible way out

Success, career, hobbies make for a great crutch away from peer pressure. In Microtrends: The Small Forces behind Tomorrow’s Big Changes, co-author Mark J. Penn documents how teens have taken up knitting and crochet as a means to ground themselves. It’s a back-to-basics movement. Girls like Nasreen are increasingly turning to the security of systems set up by their family structures. “I am considering wearing a burqa when I travel to college. When I do, I (will) see how men treat you with respect."

Aryanish Patel, 28, a model who was bullied as a teen, turned counsellor and now works to help children of all ages, “It’s a changing world and a generation of parents who’ve coped with technological changes are conflicted. This age should not be about saving the planet, it should be about saving our children."