“Put Down Your Phone!” An Essay and Two Music Videos about Tibetan Mobile Phone Use

High Peaks Pure Earth presents two music videos about Tibetan mobile phone use and an introductory essay by Tsering Lundrub. Please scroll down to see the music videos, one by Wangmo Dechen and another by a singer using the name “Dakpo’s Dog”. The music videos contain English subtitles and the translation is also posted beneath each video. Thank you to Tsering Lundrub for providing the informative introduction.

Introduction to the Music Videos by Tsering Lundrub

Digital media, particularly as consumed through mobiles phones, is believed to be one of the fastest global phenomena that has moved around every corner of the world. In Tibet, mobile phones became popular only in the last two decades, initially primarily for phone calls and text messaging. But in less than a decade, smart phones have become pervasive and have wrought both positive and negative changes to many aspects of Tibetan societies, such as what these two songs are describing here.

Nowadays, even remote parts of Tibet have reliable internet, cell phone coverage, and cheap data plans. Tibetan society has never been so digitally connected. Similar to the rest of China, the super app WeChat constitutes a major portion of screen time for most Tibetans. WeChat includes functions for everything from messaging, video calls, sharing multimedia content, shopping online, publishing essays, banking, gaming, and more.

Social media, particularly WeChat, has also connected Tibetans in Tibet with Tibetan communities in exile and diaspora on a regular basis. It has allowed many ordinary Tibetans to keep up with the news in Dharamsala. In addition, many Tibetans for the first time can directly connect with their family members and relatives in diaspora through video calls, even if they cannot meet in person. However, this comes with the risk of phones being confiscated, and in some cases Tibetans in Tibet being detained, as a result of family members in diaspora posting content considered to be “illegal” in China, such as a photo of the Dalai Lama or a Tibetan flag.

Another advantage of smart phones is that they have an intuitive interface with icons that do not require one to be literate in Chinese to operate phones smoothly. Additionally, the voice messaging function enables easy communication in Tibetan without needing to know how to write. Even Tibetan farmers and nomads are documenting and posting videos and photos of their lives on WeChat Moments and interacting with each other with “likes” and emojis. On the positive side, smart phones have enabled the participation of even these functionally illiterate Tibetans, who are typically excluded from social media. This has allowed the majority of Tibetans to be active online community members.

For those who are literate in Tibetan, smart phones have reinvigorated Tibetan written language in the information age. The iPhone was one of the first smart phones to introduce a built-in Tibetan keyboard that fully supports Tibetan writing in its apps such as iMessage and Notes. Some think that despite the high cost, Tibetans disproportionally own more iPhones due to its support for Tibetan language. There was even a joke circulating among Tibetans that thanks to Apple, some Tibetan-medium educated graduates now have employment opportunities at the National Security Bureau, i.e. working to censor Tibetan language content. Of course, there are various Tibetan keyboards available to install in most smart phones. Nowadays there are also some Android operating systems available in Tibetan. Tibetan language support has enabled Tibetans to actively participate on social media. Weibo became the almost exclusive platform for Tibetan intellectuals writing in Tibetan. Of course, many Tibetan intellectuals also actively post their writings on WeChat Moments. It is also worth mentioning that there are many Tibetan language apps available, including dictionaries, voice recognition (e.g. Dungkar), and translation tools.

Private WeChat groups are another popular way to stay connected and disseminate information. Almost everyone belongs to several WeChat groups, for instance, family groups, village groups, prayer groups, relative groups, classmate groups, and so on. The village groups are often the largest groups, reaching the 500 member limit set by WeChat. These village groups are where you hear about village announcements and news, including nomads looking for their stray yaks. Other groups might focus on themes such as teachings of Buddhist lamas, educational lectures by intellectuals, or music and other cultural content.

While social media has connected Tibetans at an unprecedented scale, it is not without its risks. China has developed one of the most sophisticated surveillance and censorship systems in the world. Censorship is even tighter for minorities like Tibetans and has been increasingly strict in recent years. Local governments have organized education camps for Tibetans on how to use social media “legally” and “responsibly.” There are cases of WeChat group administrators who were detained because one of their group members posted “illegal content.” WeChat Moments posts can suddenly disappear from public view if it contains certain Tibetan words, even ones that do not appear to be sensitive. One work around that Tibetans have been using to evade censorship is to post a screenshot of their written posts, which can be easily circulated beyond the user’s own network without getting blocked. Additionally, many livestream video apps such as TikTok (འཁྱུགས་དབྱངས།抖音) and Kuaishou (མགྱོགས་འཕྲིན། 快手) block livestreams or delete videos if the user speaks entirely in Tibetan. Some Tibetans prevent this censorship by adding Chinese subtitles saying, “Host, this is an educational video, pleased don’t delete this video.”

Other digital content accessed on cell phones include video games, which are also becoming popular even for children who are sometimes as skilled as adults in gaming. Livestream apps are popular places for Tibetan singers, intellectuals, and general netizens to attract audiences. For many people, watching livestream and video playlists recommended by algorithms are a favorite way to spend leisure time.

However, the attraction of digital media has also become the main reason many children are nowadays glued to the screen. Many negative aspects of Tibetan social lives are exposed in online videos that show people lying, arguing, committing fraud, fighting, mistreating women, and even exposing fake tulkus (reincarnate lamas). Some worry that the use of mobile phones is eroding Tibetan morality. Others think these phenomena have always existed, but unlike in the past, social media now exposes them in front of everyone’s eyes.

The negative impacts of screen time is increasingly becoming a major issue in Tibetan society. It has become a top priority for monasteries, schools, and communities to address. Lamas lecture about the negative impacts of mobile phones at religious teachings, warning how it is a serious obstacle for religious practices and how violent video games encourage violence. School teachers also warn parents that allowing children to use mobile phones is destructive for their development. Most primary and secondary schools do not allow students to possess phones while school is in session. Community members also complain about how phones interrupt conversations at social gatherings and how it is destroying family relationships and friendships. These two songs are a good illustration of these social commentaries.

“Please Put Down Your Phone”
By Wangmo Dechen

Don’t hold your phone in your hand
Please put your phone down now
It is not a protective mala
The blurry worldwide web
Is poison to distort the vision

Now if you don’t put the phone down
Your eyes are about to go blind
Your neck is about to become crooked
Your daily activity is disrupted
Your dreams at night are disrupted

Though sending messages may be efficient
Between parents and siblings
Between couples and partners
Between the kin and relatives
It will further distance the affection

Don’t hold your phone in your hand
Please put your phone down now
It is not a protective mala
The blurry worldwide web
Is poison to distort the vision

Don’t hold your phone in your hand
Please put your phone down now
It is not a protective mala
The blurry worldwide web
Is poison to distort the vision

Don’t hold your phone in your hand
Please put your phone down now
It is not a protective mala
The blurry worldwide web
Is poison to distort the vision

Now if you don’t put the phone down
Your eyes are about to go blind
Your neck is about to become crooked
Your daily activity is disrupted
Your dreams at night are disrupted

Please put your phone down now
If you recite a mani once
It’s the dharma to bring future benefit
If you read a text once
It will benefit this and the next life

Please put your phone down now
If you recite a mani once
It’s the dharma to bring future benefit
If you read a text once
It will benefit this and the next life

Translation by High Peaks Pure Earth

“Deceived by the Phone”
Lyrics and Composition: The Immutable
Singer: Dakpo’s Dog

The function of both hands is vanquished by the phone
The visual faculties are consumed by the phone

When the old and young have phones in their hands
They need neither parents nor their friends

It’s the phone when on the road and it’s the phone at home
Neither listening to good advice nor doing meaningful work

When steering a vehicle, don’t hold your phone in your hand
As you have only one life, don’t let the phone take it away

On this phone, don’t send all sorts of messages
This human life is precious, so don’t end up in court

Holding the phone in your hands, don’t waste your time
When your youth has gone, the phone won’t have done you any good

Translation by High Peaks Pure Earth

This post is also available in: English

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