India is home to 20% of the world’s adolescent girls. Digital literacy empowers them to achieve their full potential in both their personal and professional lives, and has become all the more important in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, in spite of increasing internet penetration over the last decade, only 29% of internet users in India are female. Boys are 1.5 times more likely to own a mobile phone than girls. This puts girls at risk of being left behind and widening the existing digital gender gap.
The main barriers that girls face in accessing the Internet are affordability, gender norms, education levels, low technical literacy, concerns over privacy, family disapproval, and lack of confidence.
In spite of these challenges, girls are beating all odds to come online. They see the internet as a source of information and an alternative space where they can exert their autonomy and express themselves on their own terms.
Our team at Quilt.AI studied the digital footprint of adolescent girls across 100 villages and 33 cities in India and found that approx. 23% of girls from rural areas and 69% of girls from urban areas are active internet users.
Who are these girls? What are their motivations for coming online? What kind of content do they consume?
In partnership with Girl Effect, we analyzed digital data of over 5000 adolescent girls from lower socio-economic backgrounds in North India. We used our Culture AI to understand their motivations and experiences on the internet.
Online experiences and motivations
The content consumed and created by adolescent girls online is broadly classified into two categories: entertainment and information.
‘Entertainment’ ranges from personal stories to mass entertainment, constituting the majority of content consumed and created in the digital space. ‘Information’ refers to factual content that pertains to employment, education, self-improvement, and knowledge.
Additionally, the content has two main dimensions: external and internal. ‘External’ content revolves around self-improvement and relates to physical beauty, skills, image, etc. ‘Internal’ content pertains to the inner self and focuses on emotional aspects, such as fulfillment, stress, loneliness, etc.
Online content behavior also varies based on the social media platform. The motivations behind consumption and engagement pertain to one of the following: validation, skills, mood, and self-discovery.
Platforms like Facebook and Instagram are popular amongst girls for projecting their identity and seeking validation. Private sources like Google and Youtube are used to access information and pick up skills. Mood-based content cuts across all platforms that offer passive browsing, while Google is the go-to platform for self-discovery and answers to questions.
Content in this category ranges from emotional expressions (such as long quotes), self-presentation (mostly through selfies), and exhibiting talent (lip-sync videos, dance videos, etc.).
Skills-related content refers to information and media that helps girls navigate through professional, academic, financial, and other public spheres. These range from DIY hacks to videos, language and public speaking skills, exam preparation, and beauty and skincare related content.
Content under this category is for private consumption and primarily for entertainment purposes based on the current emotional state and mood. This ranges from personal content of discourse on family and friends to uplifting content such as songs, comedy, Bollywood gossip, and spiritual messaging.
Content pertaining to self-discovery aids the personal growth and development of girls. It increases their awareness, let’s them explore their identity, understand confidence, and ask questions about sexuality. This is in the form of queries on the female body, sex-related questions, confidence-inducing memes, and quotes, or motivational content to relieve stress and loneliness.
Creating a safe space for girls
One of the biggest internet use barriers for adolescent girls is privacy.
Most girls rely on sharing or borrowing phones to access the internet. They are subject to scrutiny by male family members or boyfriends and their online behavior is influenced by this.
They manage their privacy and freedom by using incognito browsers for private searches and frequently delete private topics, browsing history, apps, and social media accounts. Apps with a lock function (like Hike and GB Whatsapp) and private photo galleries (such as KeepSafe and Hide) are also very popular.
Given their limited access and lack of technical knowledge, they often succumb to fake news, harassment, unreliable content, and bullying when they are online.
In order to make the internet a safe space for adolescent girls, young people and parents must be equipped with the necessary knowledge and tools to be safe offline. Boys and men must be held accountable for their actions while interacting with girls online.
In an increasingly digital world, digital literacy is a crucial component of education and girls have more access to technology than we think. The COVID-19 crisis has reinforced a lot of existing gender inequalities, but it also presents us with an opportunity to close the digital gender gap and ensure that no girl is left behind.
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