Book Box | The difficulty of raising children in virtual and real worlds - Hindustan Times

Book Box | The difficulty of raising children in virtual and real worlds

Jun 09, 2024 01:23 AM IST

The Anxious Generation by Jonathon Haidt raises questions about the best ways to raise healthy and happy children in both the virtual and the real worlds.

Dear Reader,

The Anxious Generation(Sonya Dutta Choudhury) PREMIUM
The Anxious Generation(Sonya Dutta Choudhury)

"Don’t make eye contact", my mother said to me.

As the eldest of three siblings, I take this diktat to heart. I don’t make eye contact. Not with the waiter who brings us our French fries and tomato sauce. Not with the chowkidar at the entrance to our house; he stands to attention when we walk in and out, but I don't make eye contact, I do not even look at his face. I know the shift changes three times a day so it stands to reason there must be three different people but these are things I have learned not to think about.

On a family holiday to Hyderabad, we are at Golconda Fort. It is a sunny afternoon and my parents, younger sister, brother and I are wandering the ramparts of the fort with a guide. Suddenly my mother calls out to my sister. The ten-year-old wanders ahead with the guide holding her hand, as he tells her about the kings of the Qutb Shah dynasty. “I told you, don’t make eye contact and don’t speak so much – people (meaning men) get ideas, they get over friendly”, my mother scolds.

It's confusing not to have to look, not talk in a friendly manner, I tell my friends. Now, it is years later and we have been reading The Anxious Generation by Jonathon Haidt, a book on the dangers of the online world.

But what about the real world, my friend asks – is it any better?

I consider the question. In my college years in Delhi, I remember walking in public spaces in a way that didn’t draw attention to myself, holding my bag across my chest as a barricade on the bus. Things should be better now – only they aren’t.

Last week, my youngest daughter called in a panic — "What do I do? The man at the eyeglass store spoke weirdly and now he is calling me on WhatsApp, he has the number from my receipt." In Bangalore, a food deliveryman texted my second daughter after delivering dinner to her flat- "Mom, I’m scared to complain, he knows where I live", she said. The dangers of online and real worlds compound each other, as we are routinely required to share data like addresses and phone numbers. In New York, my eldest daughter avoids many neighbourhoods after dark, after being followed by strange men. The world sadly, hasn’t changed all that much.

"Why Loiter?" ask Shilpa Phadke and Sameera Khan in their book about women and their safety on Mumbai's streets. “Loiter without purpose and meaning. Loiter without being asked what time of the day it is, why we are here, what we are wearing, and whom we are with. That is when we will truly belong to the city and the city to us” they said.

Why Loiter(Sonya Dutta Choudhury)
Why Loiter(Sonya Dutta Choudhury)

Sadly, the real world doesn’t make it easy. And lest you think this is some hyperbolic rant, read Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez to see exactly how everything in the outside world, from lighting, roads, and transportation systems to the design of public spaces fails to take women’s safety into account.

So yes, we agree with the wise Prof Jonathan Haidt, that screen time is causing grave harm. His The Anxious Generation is a book we will do well to read with our children. His analysis of how social media and the digital world damage girls and boys in different ways is frightening. His solutions include sending children for physical meetings with each other and letting them explore the real world on their own. We coddle our children, he says. But a lifetime of lived experience in this matter has left us conflicted about letting our children ride the public transport system on their own.

Invisible Women(Sonya Dutta Choudhury)
Invisible Women(Sonya Dutta Choudhury)

When I read God of Small Things as a teenager, I was stunned by the incident of Estha being abused by the Orangedrink Lemondrink Man behind the refreshments counter of the movie hall. I realised my mother might have been right after all. And also, that abuse could happen to boys too. More recently, I read The Gathering by Anne Enright, a gut-wrenching story on the trauma of sexual abuse on children in Ireland, and how it traumatises the lives of generations. And The Milkman by Anna Burns, where a young school-going girl is harassed on the streets. So many more like this and they all tell the same truths.

Half a century later, I am on a bus on the road from Delhi to Manali. It’s a route I often travel with my youngest daughter. The conductor of this bus knows us both by face. Today he smiles as he hands me a bottle of bottled water. I smile back. And then wonder – am I being too friendly – will this ‘encourage’ him to be over-friendly with my daughter? And then I decide – no, it’s okay, I will not shrink and shrivel and blame myself for a man’s bad behaviour. I will be careful, but I will be friendly, for men can be allies too, I will loiter, I will make eye contact.

What about you dear Reader? What are some strategies that have worked for you as a parent or as a growing child in this generation? I would love to hear about these. And since everything this week has been the elections, here are some books on engaging with democracy if you are still in election mode. And more here, in the secret life of democracies.

And until next week, Happy Reading.

Sonya Dutta Choudhury is a Mumbai-based journalist and the founder of Sonya’s Book Box, a bespoke book service. Each week, she brings you specially curated books to give you an immersive understanding of people and places. If you have any reading recommendations or suggestions, write to her at


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