Portia and Mary (not their real names) are both 16 years old and live in Nairobi’s Kawangware area in Kenya. Neither are currently attending school – Portia is helping her family by looking after her older sister’s baby while Mary is studying to become a hairdresser to supplement her family’s income. Nevertheless, both have their own mobile phones and consider them to be prized possessions. They both started using Facebook about seven months ago, and when asked, consider themselves to be ‘experts’ on how to use the social network.
“When I’m stressed out I play games on my phone, they help me stay awake or not to focus on what I am stressing about. Like when I do not have money to buy something that I need I keep my mind off by playing a phone game. I feel smart. When am able to score a lot of points I feel very excited,” says Portia.
Mary disagrees: “When you’re playing games on your phone you can’t do anything else, I prefer to listen to the radio.”
Portia and Mary’s experiences provide a brief snapshot of some of the findings on digital access, knowledge and practices that have emerged from a UNICEF study launched this week. Entitled A (Private) Public Space, the study explores how Kenya’s rapidly transforming digital landscape is impacting on the rights of children in the country.
The title of the study was inspired by one of the strongest sentiments that was shared by participants – that digital tools provide them with one of the few opportunities to create and explore their own identifies, free from the influence or interference of family members.
For the most of them the device enabling this is a simple mobile phone with Internet-access, or a computer in cyber-café. These young people are part of the rapidly growing population of ‘connected’ Kenyans: mobile penetration in the country is at over 75 per cent, and while Internet penetration was a more modest 28 per cent in mid-2012, it represents a major leap from just a few years earlier.
“Since I did not have an email address, a cybercafé technician first helped me to open my email account and then Facebook account, but I entered the password by myself. He also showed me how to hide my date of birth, so when people ask me how old I am I can tell them what I want,” says Portia.
Kenya is one of several countries around the world where UNICEF is taking a closer look at the opportunities and risks that access to digital technology presents for young people. In 2010 UNICEF’s Social and Civic Media section launched the Voices of Youth Citizens initiative which promotes the use of digital media and technologies to advance the rights of children in developing countries, while at the same time advocating measures to minimise the risks that they can pose.
And evidence of risks is apparent when the participants are asked about their negative online experiences; but they are also quick to point out some of the strategies they use to deal with some of the unpleasant occurrences.
“There was this guy, he wasn’t my friend online – I had not accepted his friend request – but he kept sending me these messages…like all suggestive stuff…and I really didn’t like it. So I blocked him,” says Portia.
“I block people who post nonsense a lot. I mean you can tell them not to send you things but if they don’t listen you just block them,” says Mary.
The UNICEF study in Kenya also supports some of the findings from international studies, which show that children and adolescents perceive the risk-level of certain online activities differently to their parents – especially when it comes to interacting with people who they have established connections with solely via online means.
“When I use the internet I get to meet friends who encourage me, we share experiences and when I am feeling down I can talk to them and get advice. And not just people you have already met, even those you have never physically met,” says Portia.
The study also points to a disconnect between parents and their children when it comes to Internet-use – especially social media. Many participants reported that their parents and caregivers had a low level of digital literacy; and this knowledge gap was even greater for those living in poorer urban neighborhoods or rural areas. Lying about, or concealing their use of social networks was commonly reported, and parents, caregivers and teachers were rarely mentioned as sources of support in cases of online bullying or harassment.
Based on focus group discussions with 130 young people aged between 12 and 17, the report moves beyond establishing the latest figures and rates for usage, and instead focuses on understanding some of the behavior and motivations that drive the use of digital media, factoring in the age, gender, geography and the socio-economic circumstances of participants.
The findings of the study – while not representative of all adolescents in Kenya – are important for guiding the work of UNICEF and other organisations in designing and developing strategies, policies and campaigns to ensure that children and young people are able to reap the full benefits of access to the Internet, social media and the ever growing number of digital innovations.
The study was commissioned by UNICEF, and conducted by Intermedia between December 2012 and May 2013, with the objective of understanding how young people, aged 12-17, in Kenya are using social media and digital technologies, and what risks and opportunities this presents for the protection and advancement of their rights.