Children & ICT – The Global Village In Action

Cross post – first published for The Huffington Post – do comment or share the original article available here.

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A report by UNICEF into the digital habits of Kenyan teens has revealed that young people in ‘Africa’s Silicon Valley’ display many of the same online behaviours and concerns as young people in other parts of the world. This suggests that the digital experiences of young people across the globe are becoming increasingly universal.

The research, conducted by Intermedia – with technical support from the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University – explored experiences around cyber safety, the motivations for young people’s internet use, as well as the frequent disconnect between parental digital know-how and the reality of their children’s digital lives.

Interestingly, there are many parallels between the findings of UNICEF’s report and similar studies conducted in the Western world (including Ofcom’s recent study of Children and Parents: Media Use and Attitudes, and a stateside analysis by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project into Teens, Social Media, and Privacy).

Small World
Despite coming from different backgrounds and cultures, young people in Kenya use digital technology for many of the same reasons as young people in the US and the UK. Perhaps not surprisingly this includes entertainment, information and social related activities (such as instant messaging and chatting with real – and digital – friends).

But alongside this, you may be surprised by the extent to which many young Kenyans are also harnessing the internet as a tool for dating, alongside more anticipated uses such as gaming or exploring their hobbies and interests. That some phone companies in Kenya reduce the cost of mobile internet connections after 10pm also allows young people to chat into the night when everyone else is asleep.

Mostly I like Facebooking (sic), chatting with my boyfriend, at night because I cannot talk to him when everybody else is listening in, and chatting is a bit private.

[Female, 15-17, Kawangware]

Nonetheless, there are some key variations in the way young people in Kenya experience the digital world when compared to their international contemporaries.

Technological Divides
Ofcom’s report, for example, noted how the UK’s youngsters are eschewing feature phones for smartphones and how they increasingly turn to tablet computers to access the internet at home. As a result, 17% of UK 8-11s claim to mostly go online from the comfort of their bedroom.

In contrast, very few young people in Kenya have laptops or tablets at home, indeed only 54% have access to a TV at home. However, with 75% of them reporting that they have access to a mobile phone, this is often the primary – and sometimes only – means for them to go online.

Mind the Gap
Alongside these technological differences, a further contrast can be seen in the role of parental oversight.

In the UK and the US parents are much more likely to talk to their children about being safe online than they are in Kenya. They are also more aware of how to use filters to reduce exposure to inappropriate content, and are more likely to work with their children to help them manage their privacy settings and the information they share online.

Kenyan parents on the other hand tend to focus on restricting digital media usage by their children, rather than facilitating its safe use. The reason for this may lie, in part, in lower levels of confidence and experience with ICT among Kenyan parents. But they are not the only ones to sometimes feel daunted by technology, 14% of UK adults claim their 3-4 year old knows more about the internet than they do.

What this means
The impact of this is twofold; firstly it can overlook the positive role that ICT can play in supporting education and learning. Secondly, it can have the opposite of its intended effect, leading instead to what McAfee refer to as “Digital Deceptions” where some “young people use their parent’s limited tech acumen and time constraints to their advantage, finding ways to hide their participation in risky and sometimes illegal activities.”

In Kenya this results in many young people tailoring their ICT use at home (focusing on chat apps and SMS to avoid talking aloud) or seeking cyber cafes – so they can surf in private. For Western teens it can manifest itself in using apps like Snapchat or adjusting your Facebook settings so that your parents cannot see your status updates or pictures.

Just how risky some of this behaviour is depends, to some extent, on your standpoint. In the digital space – just as outside it – young people make a judgement call on whether the benefits of any activity outweigh its risks.

As Daniel J. Solove, Professor of Law at George Washington University has noted:

“…Young people have a very nuanced understanding of privacy. They don’t see privacy as simply keeping secrets. They understand privacy as controlling information flow.”

Moving Forward
Anyone interested in the digital wellbeing of teens and younger children, has to accept that we cannot hold back the technological tide.

Digital subterfuge and parental disapproval are at times inevitable. In effect, many teens are using digital media just as they previously used music or fashion; as a means to help define their identity and facilitate their transition into adulthood.

This is nothing to be scared of. The increasing universality of children’s digital lives offers an opportunity to tailor best practice and learning from across the globe for local markets. By using replicable tools and techniques – from online portals through to media campaigns and peer-to-peer training – we can support young people so that they can go online in a way that is as safe as it is empowering.

Wherever you live, hopefully this is a goal that everyone can aspire to.

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