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6 Constraints on Youth Usage of Internet Services in African Countries

By Guest Writer on March 2, 2022

internet access challenges youth

The Internet is presented as a panacea for the challenges that young people face, but this is not necessarily the case. Despite being drivers of Internet take up, young people’s use of the Internet is not optimal, especially within contexts of deprivation. The arising policy question this research seeks to answer is: what are the best approaches to ensuring that Internet access and use benefits youth within a context of poverty.

Youth, Deprivation and the Internet in Africa investigates – from young people’s perspective – whether the Internet could be used to help them deal with the various issues they face. With a focus on Nigeria, Rwanda and Tanzania, the paper considers what the policy implications of this are and proposes possible policy interventions.

The potential positive impact of the Internet only goes as far as what one uses it for and the extent to which the challenges faced require an ICT-related intervention. Indeed, the particular circumstances determine the effect the Internet can have on young peoples’ lives. In this section, we highlight challenges to Internet use and perceptions by young people of the inability of the Internet to address their challenges.

1. Internet Access Affordability

“You might also have these devices but lack money to buy megabytes because they are costly, and to make matters worse, you might have megabytes but fail to access the Internet because of poor, or slow, Internet connection” (teen female, urban Rwanda).

Cost of services and devices, the lack of access points, quality and speed of network and devices with limited capacity, all limit the scope of access and use. Some participants did not own a device and had to rely on friends and family members to access the Internet. The cost of accessing the Internet, whether through mobile Internet or an Internet café, was also frequently mentioned as limiting optimal use by young people. In some instances, this cost is also related to having to travel to the nearest Internet access point.

2. Required Digital Skills

Once one has access, certain limitations may remain, such as digital skills, language barriers and information overload, all impacting the way and the extent that those with access use the Internet. Young people described the lack digital skills as ranging from not knowing what the Internet is, to lacking the knowledge of how to use the Internet:

“We also face challenges associated with lack of skills to use the Internet. If one doesn’t have someone to help, it becomes difficult to use it. You may see WhatsApp but be unable to use it. This is also a problem. Someone can have a smartphone but lack the skill to use it” (young adult male, rural Rwanda).

3. Missing Local Content

In addition, the lack of content in local languages impacts on effective Internet use. In Rwanda, young people complained about the lack of content in their own local language. One participant pointed out that the fashion trends they follow are from Korea, and they use their own language. More frequently voiced was the complaint that most of the content is provided in English, as one other participant from Rwanda stated:

“The content on the Internet is mainly in English; maybe if it was in Kinyarwanda I could use it easily and perform different tasks. I wish we had someone to teach us how to use the Internet” (young adult male, rural Rwanda).

4. Restricted Access and Use

Young people’s community and family context also determines the extent of optimal use and their ability to address the challenges they face. Many, especially teens and young women, described operating in contexts of restricted use by their parents, associated with a lack of trust; all spoke of restricted access at facilities, such as the school, and of discouragement by other people from using the Internet.

In Tanzania, rural female participants stated that even when one is able to buy a smartphone, parents do not trust them. In Nigeria, one participant stated that her mother refuses to buy her a phone because “she believes that if she gives it to me, she will spoil me” (young adult female, rural Nigeria). Parental restrictions range from a complete ban on using the Internet to monitored Internet usage. Parents also confiscate devices that give access: “I have (a) phone but my mummy is always seizing my phone” (female teen, rural Nigeria).

Participants in Rwanda specifically mentioned that while they do have Internet access at school, they are not allowed to be on certain sites such as YouTube or Facebook. In other instances, participants stated that when borrowing a device, online activity is monitored, limiting what it is they can do online. As one teen, male, urban participant from Nigeria put it:

“Even if my parents are going to allow me to use their phone, they are going to always time me…I don’t get real good access to post whatever I want to post on the Internet” (teen male, urban Nigeria).

Parents are said to discourage their children from going online for fear of the content they will be exposed to. Several of the participants, in all of the countries, shared this concern. ‘Bad content’ was often described as pornographic or nude pictures, which “corrupt (the) mind of youth” (teen male, urban Nigeria). Participants understand the parental discouragement that is associated with such ‘bad content’ as it is seen to be tarnishing their minds or wasting their time.

Teens and young adults both remarked that if one is only using the Internet to watch pornographic content, for example, then it does nothing to address their challenges. It is in this light that some agreed that “most youths access the Internet for useless stuff” (young adult male, urban Tanzania).

5. Safety and Privacy Concerns

Safety and privacy concerns also limit Internet use. Participants are aware of the dangers found online, such as scamming, either through duplication of their personal content online, or through confidence scams. Participants in Nigeria gave examples of 419 scams,10 or their passwords being stolen as a security issue one needs to be aware of when using the Internet.

Across all three countries, there was also the fear of individuals duplicating online profiles. In Tanzania, a teenager, who owned a SIM card but borrowed a friend’s device and kept his SIM card with the friend, discovered this friend had created a profile with all his details:

“During one holiday, I found my friend had already connected me to the Facebook platform and shared my picture. I asked him how my picture got to the Facebook platform …. He responded that he took my pictures and used my phone number to open an account and communicate with several people. It was surprising that someone shared my picture on Facebook” (teen male, urban Tanzania).

In Rwanda, there was a concern that not knowing what one should or should not post online would lead to posting things that are deemed inappropriate or that could jeopardise one’s security:

“Because of the lack of knowledge, you end up posting something in a wrong place that can affect your security. Another thing is that I have heard of many people posting a picture on WhatsApp while they are naked because of lack of knowledge” (young adult female, urban Rwanda).

There were several cases warranting concern for young people’s safety in Rwanda. Some participants described meeting up offline with individuals who they had met online, despite being aware of human trafficking risks. One participant travelled to Germany, having connected with someone on social media. Another participant planned on meeting up with a Ugandan at the border but later found out the meeting was not possible as the individual had been arrested.

6. Internet Utility Limitations

Finally, there was also the perception that Internet usage is a double-edged sword – where ‘good use’ easily becomes ‘bad use’, and where a possible positive impact sits alongside a potentially negative impact on people. As a result, there was the perception that the reach of the Internet is limited in its ability to solve young people’s day-to-day problems, and at the same time, it easily distracts young people. Several youth declared that the Internet would not be able to address fundamental infrastructure issues, such as not having electricity or ill-treatment, for instance.

“If they even tell me, then I would disagree because I would be asking them how the Internet would solve my problems, such as maltreating, beating, caning, punishment all the time” (teen female, rural Nigeria).

In addition, the vast majority of participants agreed that a lack of capital to start one’s business – an issue of concern for the entrepreneurial participants – cannot be solved by accessing the Internet. Young girls in all countries agreed that Internet access would also not easily be able to shift community perceptions and expectations of girls.

“It is not easy for a girl to leave home and purposely go maybe to a cyber café to access the Internet. This is because girls have responsibilities, like household chores. Well…[some] girls are also not interested in Internet, and some choose to stay home, and those who have some interest don’t put in effort to convince their parents about the importance of using the Internet” (young adult female, urban Rwanda).

An edited excerpt from Youth, Deprivation and the Internet in Africa by Alison Gillwald and Chenai Chair at Research ICT Africa

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