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Kenya study looks at the growing community of young Internet users

© UNICEF Kenya/2013/Huxta
Affordable internet-enabled mobile phones and flexible prepaid schemes are allowing more and more Kenyans to access the Internet – and children and young people are leading the rise in their use.

By Kate Pawelczyk

NAIROBI, Kenya, 30 September 2013 – Mary, 16, and Portia*, 17, live in Kawangware, a low-income neighbourhood in Nairobi. Neither attends school – Portia is looking after her older sister’s baby, and Mary is studying to become a hairdresser. Nonetheless, both have mobile phones and started using Facebook about seven months ago.

“When I’m stressed out, I play games on my phone,” says Portia. “They help me stay awake or not focus on what I am stressing about.”

Mary offers a different view: “When you’re playing games on your phone, you can’t do anything else. I prefer to listen to the radio.”

The girls’ experiences provide a snapshot of some of the findings of a UNICEF study recently launched in Nairobi looking at young people and issues of digital access, knowledge and emerging practices. The study, A (Private) Public Space, explores the impact of Kenya’s rapidly transforming digital landscape on the rights of children in the country.

The title was inspired by one of the main sentiments expressed by participants – that digital tools provide one of the few opportunities to create and explore personal identities away from the influence or interference of family members. The device most commonly used is a mobile phone with Internet access or a computer in a cyber café. With mobile penetration in the country at over 75 per cent, and Internet penetration at 28 per cent in mid-2012, these young people are part of the rapidly growing population of ‘connected’ Kenyans.

Understanding the opportunity and risk

Kenya is one of several countries in which 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 seeks to understand the use of digital media by children and young people in order to support awareness-raising and advocacy efforts and minimize the risks that digital media can pose.

Evidence of these risks is apparent in the study’s responses about negative online experiences, but participants were also quick to point out some of the strategies they use to deal with unpleasant occurrences, such as blocking insulting users and withholding personal details.

The study also points to a knowledge gap 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, especially among those living in poorer urban neighborhoods or rural areas. Concealing or lying about the use of social networks was also commonly reported, and parents, caregivers and teachers were rarely cited as sources of support in cases of online bullying or harassment.

A more nuanced understanding of digital habits

Based on focus-group discussions with young people in Kenya aged between 12 and 17, the report focuses on understanding the behavior and motivations that drive the use of digital media, factoring in the age, gender, location and socio-economic circumstances of participants.

While the study is not a comprehensive survey of all Kenyan adolescents, the findings will help UNICEF and its partners develop campaigns and policies to ensure that children and young people benefit from digital innovations  in a safer and more responsible environment.

*Names have been changed to protect the identity of participants. Photos in this story and the report do not depict participants in the study.



UNICEF Photography: Nomadic schools in Kenya

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