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‘Never Have I Ever’ Star Shares How Teens Can Deal With Abuse Online

"It’s a journey when it comes to dealing with the haters and becoming more resilient to them."
Maitreyi Ramakrishnan playing Devi Vishwakumar in Netflix's "Never Have I Ever."
Maitreyi Ramakrishnan playing Devi Vishwakumar in Netflix's "Never Have I Ever."

Maitreyi Ramakrishnan has become an overnight sensation in just six months. If you allow yourself to reminisce on the earlier days of The Pandemic, the Tamil Canadian teen rose to fame in April, as the star in Mindy Kaling’s Netflix coming-of-age series, “Never Have I Ever.”

While the rest of us are busy talking to our plants and attending Zoom happy hours, the 18-year-old from Mississauga, Ont. shared on her Instagram this week that she is the newest global ambassador for Plan International Canada.

The international children’s rights organization is calling on girls everywhere to sign an open letter to hold social-media platforms more accountable for the rampant abuse that goes unchecked on their platforms. This year’s Plan International report takes a closer look at the lives of girls online and how they’re navigating what is increasingly becoming a sexist and racist battlefield on their screens.

According to the report, in Canada, 72 per cent of girls and young women said that they had experienced negative effects from being harassed on social-media platforms — including lower self-esteem, mental or emotional stress, and followed by problems at school. Harassment is widespread online; in the U.K., the switch to remote learning during the pandemic has led to students posting abusive sexual images in online lectures, according to The Guardian.

Ramakrishnan hopes her recent stardom and booming social media presence will help bring awareness to women and girls issues globally. We chatted with her about her new role in Plan International’s #freetobeonline campaign, how she deals with online trolls, and what it’s like being a newly famous brown girl on the internet.

Your Instagram bio reads: Respect existence or expect resistance. Tell me what this means to you.

Ramakrishnan: It’s all about respecting people for who they are. If you don’t, then expect them to fight back, as they should. We identify through so many ways: race, sexuality, gender ... it’s so important to respect people for who they are and how they want to identify.

Six in ten girls surveyed in Canada have experienced online abuse and harassment, Plan International Canada research shows. Where can girls go to feel safe online?

Ramakrishnan: I don’t think it’s a question of what girls should be doing. It’s a question of holding these social media platforms accountable for perpetuating this environment that makes it unsafe. I’m not going to tell a girl, “Hey maybe don’t post ‘that kind’ of post, or don’t create this kind of content,” because that’s wrong. Let’s hold the people who are creating this environment accountable. Look to your family and friends for support because they know who you are — not the social media version of you. Continue rocking your content!

People online suck. We know this. How can we better educate teens to understand how they affect others online?

Ramakrishnan: You have to start with yourself. When it comes to internet etiquette, it’s about understanding that normalizing harassment is not OK. And you have to make sure you’re not part of that normalization — especially when it comes to leaving a comment. Are you saying something productive or are you saying something hurtful because you’re having a bad day? Did you need to lash out at a random person because you think there’s no repercussions and they’ll never know who you are? Is that really worth it? You never know what the other person is going through, and how their day is going.

How do you use your privilege to set good examples of online behaviour?

Ramakrishnan: It’s always nice to say ‘Hey, this looks great!’ to a new creator or business. That positivity goes a long way and I think people underestimate that. I love hyping up my homies. It’s cool to be nice. Being nice isn’t cringey.

There are so many awesome IG accounts run by women from the South Asian diaspora. They’ve given rise to the #browngirlcomeup in recent years. Which brown influencers/artists/activists should we be following?

Ramakrishnan: Malavika Kannan (@malavika.kannan), ― hands down. She spread the word about her book, “The Bookweaver’s Daughter,” entirely through Instagram. Sri Ramesh (@sriiramesh) ... I absolutely adore her voice. I want her to sing at my wedding and my funeral. She’s the soundtrack for my life right now. Her voice is angelic. And Rakshan (@rakshanx) on Tik Tok. He’s a big supporter of the LGBTQ+ community and brown guys in makeup.

For women who feel emboldened online, it’s become common to document abuse on social media in a variety of ways, like comedic vlogs or social justice artwork. What are ways you’re seeing women on social media reclaim space online and what impact do you think this has?

Ramakrishnan: If we can be honest enough to say, ‘Someone commented a mean thing, and it hurt me’ that’s actually great. We try to put on a facade that everything is fine, but it’s OK to say that the haters hurt you. I think we gotta start saying, ‘Hey, I’m hurt, and this really sucks. Let’s talk about it.’ It’s really not a bad thing to be vulnerable online. It helps other girls understand that their feelings are just as valid.

Since the show came out, has it been harder being “a brown girl” on social media?

Ramakrishnan: I never really understood what being a brown woman meant. I was just a kid in high school. After the show, I understood. This is rough and tough. Being a South Asian girl, we get comments like, “Oh that’s so scandalous,” when it comes to being revealing with your body. Appealing to your community is also huge. There’s no escape. I always get asked, “Do you speak Tamil?” Like, I just wanna talk about Animal Crossing. But there’s nothing I’d rather be than a brown girl!

How do you deal with trolls?

Ramakrishnan: After “Never Have I Ever” came out, I couldn’t prepare myself for the trolls. I used to be really scared to open any social media app. It really took a toll on me. Even though there were so many positive comments about the show, I’d spotlight that one negative comment. I’d be so tempted to respond back or do something. My family would always tell me it’s not worth it. Why should I care about what this one person says? They don’t even know me. I try not to take it too seriously. It’s a journey when it comes to dealing with the haters and becoming more resilient to them.

What do you do to keep your social media experience as positive and stress-free as possible?

Ramakrishnan: I try to stay authentic to myself. I’ll rest easy knowing I am portraying exactly who I am rather than putting out content I think people expect of me or want to see. We’ve grown up with phones attached to our hands. We’ve grown up with validation coming from likes and follows. It’s all a part of that journey of realizing that it doesn’t matter. I don’t care who likes my photo or how many people like my photo, because I like my photo.

Any tips on finding the balance between social media and having fun offline, particularly at this time?

Ramakrishnan: Video games. It’s always a solid go-to. Playing piano, violin, singing. These are hobbies I do for myself. Face-timing friends. My cousin keeps making me work out with her. She keeps making me do fitness videos. The couch is right there and you’re expecting me to do sit ups? That is so wrong!

What advice do you have for parents who might not be so familiar with what social media apps their teen is using?

Ramakrishnan: Try to take the time to understand it by asking your kid, not in an invasive way. Show them you actually care. If you care to know if they’re being bullied online, then take the time to care about what they’re proud of putting out, too.

This interview has been edited for length and flow.

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