November 20, 2019

Online Friendships and Teenage Girls

The use of the internet has flourished significantly especially since technology has become mainstream around the world. While its usage isn’t limited to any demographics, the internet is more common among young people for whom it is a primary source of communication, and essentially part of a modern lifestyle. It reflects their need to form and maintain relationships with others by their constant adoption of new patterns of digital communication with peers, seeking a position within a group, and share their experiences.

Where social media advances opportunities to connect, learn and engage, it’s also essential to address the risks that come with presenting personal and often sensitive information to individuals who could pose harm to users’ safety, both online and offline. Even though this pattern is very common among internet users globally, it has resulted in serious reparations in Pakistan as well, especially when it comes to online friendships of teenage girls. 

Social media as a tool for new friendships

Zainab, an 18-year-old girl, started talking to a man one year before the incident happened. She said she didn’t understand when things went out of hand, and she couldn’t ask for support since her association was hidden from her conservative family who wouldn’t approve of the relationship.

Given the limited avenues to interact with people outside of their immediate social circle, teenagers, particularly young girls resort to the internet and online spaces to look for potential relationships

In Pakistan, there are hardly any public spaces for young single individuals to connect and meet new people and get to know one another. For those that want to go beyond their immediate social circle and cast a wider net, so to speak, there are hardly any spaces that allow that. 

Pakistani society doesn’t allow women the freedom to have intimate relationships outside of the matrimonial contract. The cultural stigma attached to these relationships is intense enough to stop young girls from having friendships with men, and vice versa. Given the limited avenues to interact with people outside of their immediate social circle, teenagers, particularly young girls resort to the internet and online spaces to look for potential relationships. They tend to establish friendships on social media sites where these friendships, have transitioned from a physical space to their computer to their mobile phone; the information about their potential partner is condensed into a series of photos and certain one-line descriptions.

While this is a positive development furthered by technological advancement, this doesn’t conclude the challenges that teenagers and young adults face.

The nature of pictures got more and more intimate and personal over time. Zainab was carried away by her thoughts/idea of him and imagined her online friend to be the one for her.

Zainab started talking to an unknown man who messaged her on Instagram. She says, “I went through the [Instagram] timeline of the guy who had pictures of his perfect gym body standing with his Porsche in Dubai, visiting places around the world.” She adds, “With this, I could not resist the temptation to reply”

“A mistake I regret greatly till now,” she adds.

She thinks that she was a fool to believe that she “had found the love of her life” as they started talking often and casually. When asked about the type of conversations she had, she says “at first, simpler conversations towards introducing families, lifestyles and sharing contact numbers. Later, we began talking frequently, he asked me for my pictures whilst he sent his.” The nature of pictures got more and more intimate and personal over time. Zainab was carried away by her thoughts/idea of him and imagined her online friend to be the one for her.

He made Zainab feel very good about herself as he complimented her looks. She said, “he listened to my rants and used to calm me down when I would be upset.”

The expectation of always being holier-than-thou and never interact with strange men pulls women in Pakistani society down and hinders their confidence of connecting with the world, and ultimately their personal and professional growth. These expectations not only limit them from accessing the opportunities, but also threatens their safety in the form of targeted harassment, restricting access to public spaces, and in extreme scenarios honor killing, in case of defiance.

  She eventually found out that the man in the pictures wasn’t the one she has been talking to, in fact, he had stolen the identity and photos of someone else.

Zainab’s family had no inkling about all this happening. She decided on telling this to a friend but in a very neutralized manner, not enough to being identified as a threat by her friend.

Given the serious repercussions, online friendships and contact with outsiders are often kept a secret from families and larger social circle in attempts to stay away from unwanted and disproportionate threats and attacks. And while there are risks of pressure from families, these friendships often lead to young girls being vulnerable to harms that await them in online spaces, like harassment, bullying, and abuse. 

It did pinch Zainab a lot of times that whether the guy she’s talking to is actually the person he’s pretending to be. She randomly tried asking him multiple times, but he would either get mad or would change the topic.  She eventually found out that the man in the pictures wasn’t the one she has been talking to, in fact, he had stolen the identity and photos of someone else. But she says that the damage had already been done when she shared her intimate photos with him.

I didn’t know how to get myself out of this situation. This left me devastated and lead me to even think about suicide.

Zainab

Young girls are looking for love online as their exposure typically is confined within  families. Therefore, young girls usually carry on with these online associations and end up trusting their online friends on social media with their privacy more than needed, to explore new avenues of possible romantic relationships for themselves, ignoring any red flags they may encounter during their association. The love which they often mistake turns into online abuse.

“Later I found out my pictures being abused in very improper ways. I reported to law agencies [within] my own capacity without telling my family but that didn’t help”. She told that she registered an online complaint on the website of FIA but did not receive a response. She further added: “I didn’t know how to get myself out of this situation. This left me devastated and lead me to even think about suicide,” said Zainab.

She still faces the consequences of this incident with all her social media accounts deactivated, and limiting her social life. Zainab still receives text messages threatening her sometimes, but she doesn’t know how to respond to them .The accounts and numbers that message her are never the same and are taken off instantly. 

Games of Honor

Malaika, a 14-year-old girl, started talking to a man through an online game, Ludo Star. She said, “I would spend a lot of time playing the game. I met a guy on the game where we partnered and won. I started teaming up with him often, not yet sharing any conversation until he sent me a personal message asking for my Facebook [profile] where he could message me.” 

She did not approach any law enforcement agency because she thought it might bring a bad name to her family, as somewhere, she blamed herself for what happened. 

When asked about the nature of the conversations, Malaika said, “The conversations would be simple. We talked frequently once we got connected over Facebook. Both of us lived in different cities, so we couldn’t meet.” Malaika had told her elder sister about this but she didn’t see it as a potential threat, though she did ask her not to add strangers on her Facebook, especially when she has her pictures and personal information over the site. But Malaika trusted this man to not pose any harm to her safety. 

However, she discovered that she had been locked out of her account; the man who she had befriended had hacked it. Malaika eventually got her account recovered only to find out that inappropriate messages had been sent to random men from her Facebook account. “I deleted the account he was added on that [he] hacked, and [made] a new one with a fake name for myself,” she says. 

She did not approach any law enforcement agency because she thought it might bring a bad name to her family, as somewhere, she blamed herself for what happened. 

Likes that matter

A young girl aged 16 who wishes to remain anonymous, received a friend request from a man on Facebook that she accepted without a background check. She says, “I didn’t involve myself into talking to him, but we exchanged likes on each other’s posts. I got so used to him  [liking] my posts that I would upload pictures of myself and random statuses just to get his like.” 

I reported the account to Facebook and asked all my friends to report it. The account was taken down, but the memory of the event still haunts me

She randomly got a message from him where he has sent the photo that she had shared on her timeline and commented that she looked pretty in it. She instantly felt uncomfortable when she found out that he had been saving her photos on his phone. “I asked him to delete it, to which we got into an argument ending in blocking each other,” says. After a while, she realized that her pictures were used in a fake account that uploaded inappropriate content and had added her friends and family pretending it was her. 

“I reported the account to Facebook and asked all my friends to report it. The account was taken down, but the memory of the event still haunts me, where I either do not upload pictures of myself anymore, or upload them not showing my face,” she said.  

Friends and Trust

During summer vacations, Maryam, 19 years old, decided to talk to a man who had recently started following her on Instagram.  After she initiated the conversation, they started talking and went on for almost three months. 

According to Maryam, “He was there through my hardest times when I couldn’t get into [the] college I always dreamt of. He remained my support system,” adding, “he understood me since he said he faced the same scenario.” 

She says that she started screaming at the signal when he tried to molest her in the car

Both of them lived in the same city so they decided to meet in a café. They spent two hours together before he offered to drop Maryam to her house in his car.

“I was initially reluctant and told him that I’ll go myself,” said Maryam. “He assured me that we’ve been friends for a while, and I can trust him completely.” Maryam, gave in to the pressure and agreed though unwillingly. “In the middle of our journey, he started asking me weird questions making me feel uncomfortable.” She says that she started screaming at the signal when he tried to molest her in the car. She managed to get him to stop the car and get out of it as soon as she could. 

After the episode, Maryam says she felt violated and was disturbed by the incident. She didn’t approach any law enforcement agencies because she had always thought of herself as a girl old enough to handle her situations herself.    

Conclusion

There is an evident digital gender divide in Pakistan. According to MMFD’s recent report “The Internet As We See It”, internet users in Pakistan have identified harassment and data privacy issues as their most pressing concerns online. Young girls have to be more careful while using the internet. They establish online friendships not being aware of the consequences, especially when they do not know the person they are befriending. 

Online friendships, although often form unbreakable bond between people, have also resulted in serious damages for young girls. While it’s important to have connections built, it’s also essential to always be vigilant when adding someone online – especially on social media profiles where the users’ personal information is easily accessible.

While it’s important to have connections built, it’s also essential to always be vigilant when adding someone online

Education, awareness, warning young girls and strengthening the implementation of the laws can be possible solutions to this menace, but girls usually do not involve law enforcement agencies when faced with such situations given the stigma around reporting harassment, the victim blaming from the law enforcement agencies, and the societal pressure on families to protect their honor. 

Guardians and parents should ensure that they give their children the comfort by trusting them enough where they can come up to them to talk about their problems. Such cases can be lessened if parents become more accepting and accessible, and less fearful.

Written by

Hareem Aqdas is a student of International Relations at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad and a former exchange student to the US for the course of Leadership and Social Justice.

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