I met Sandra at the Little Theatre in Oysterbay, Dar es Salaam recently during the screening of a documentary on growing up in the digital age. The young lady says she had become a social media slave and wanted that to end. She did not want to be controlled by her smartphone anymore.
Sandra Alex,17, had her first smartphone in 2008 when she was just 13-years-old. Her parents bought her the phone when she was in Standard Seven. Now a high school graduate, Sandra recalls how the device almost made her run crazy.
I met Sandra at the Little Theatre in Oysterbay, Dar es Salaam recently during the screening of a documentary on growing up in the digital age. The young lady says she had become a social media slave and wanted that to end. She did not want to be controlled by her smartphone anymore. On one particular day, one after the other, Sandra uninstalled all the addictive apps on her phone, especially those to do with social media.
“I started with Instagram, since that was the worst of all as I would be on it almost 24/7. This was followed by Snapchat and others I had installed on my phone,” says the slim light skinned girl who lives in Masaki. “I had become a social media addict. That is where my mind used to be all the time. All I did was update my Instagram page almost every second by posting pictures of myself and just everything that I wanted my followers to see. In short, I just couldn’t get my hands off my phone. I was like a slave to it, doing whatever it wanted me to do.”
The profound effect brought about by Sandra’s excessive use of social media, as she puts it, was lack of interest in physical interaction. Whenever she went out to meet friends, she found it so hard to concentrate on conversations but would rather find her fingers busy swiping through her smartphone screen.
“I realised something wasn’t right and I had to do something quickly. It was very hard in the beginning but I kept trying and eventually got there,” Sandra recalls. Today she only uses Apps like Kindle, her favourite, where she reads books online. She also uses WhatsApp for easier communication and has completely dumped Snapchat, Facebook and other Apps she finds addictive.
Common Sense Media, a US based non-profit organisation which provides independent reviews, age ratings and other information about all types of media, carried out a study last year on Technology Addiction: Concern, Controversy, and Finding Balance and found out that half of all young people feel they are addicted to their devices.
According to the study, almost 60 per cent of adults think their children are addicted. Internet addiction is described as a swath of excessive and compulsive technology related behaviours resulting in negative outcomes.
Dr Pamela Kaduri, an addiction psychiatrist at the Muhimbili National Hospital says there remains substantial disagreement about whether Internet addiction is a new psychological disorder or the manifestation of another disorder, how it is measured, and how prevalent it is.
Internet addiction, Dr Kaduri says, is a real and growing condition. Be it smartphone or social media addiction, experts warn the addiction can have a severe impact on a child’s development in school and on his or her future life.
Some stakeholders point out the fact that today’s parents are very busy and thus spend less time with their children, they unknowingly put the children at risk of addiction.
The parents’ long absence from home makes them feel guilty “and to make it up for the lost time and to make their children happy, they expose them to digital use by buying them digital devices,” says Ms Joyce Maina, a teacher at the Haven of Peace Academy in Dar es Salaam.
“Parents think they can use the gadgets as a substitute, which is totally wrong.”
Despite supporting the idea that parents contribute to their children’s Internet addiction, Dr Namala Mkopi, a Consultant and Child Health Specialist at the Muhimbili National Hospital, says it’s not fair to judge them negatively since most do so as a way of showing their children affection.
The expert argues that the digital devices are good for both parents and children and that parents only need to understand the side effects and how to deal with them.
Dr Mkopi says too much screen time makes a child develop a sense of social detachment and sees no importance of physical interactions since they are only used to online interaction.
“This can lead to severe repercussions to a child’s future life even during their adulthood. It could result to severe social dysfunctions, like being unable to properly raise their own families or poor public speaking skills” Dr Mkopi says.
Ms Veneranda Kirway, a clinical psychologist and an assistant lecturer at the Hubert Kairuki Memorial University, says the environment around children needs to be conducive so as to minimise the harmful effects of the gadgets.
“For example, when students are on long holidays, how do we ensure they are not idle? Being idle could lead to their exposure to these gadgets” observes the clinical psychologist.
Dr Kaduri concedes saying that the most critical and difficult period is the time between when a child returns from school and when they go to bed.
“We don’t have any after school programmes, then how do we monitor our children? What does a child do after school? I think we need to look at this carefully and see how we can help,” says Dr Kaduri.
Mr Salmin Jongo, 34, is a father of four children, two who are in primary school. The Upanga resident is of the view that as a father, it his duty to make sure his family is happy.
“This includes meeting my children’s needs when I can afford just to make them happy.” Mr Jongo who is an engineer bought his younger children a video game and although he hasn’t bought them smartphones, he finds it okay when his children play with his or their mother’s phone. Surprisingly, he does not know what the children do with the phones.
Experts see ignorance among a majority of parents on the effects of the use of digital devices on their children as a major problem that might lead hundreds of children to Internet addiction.
In an effort to voice the issue and fill the existing information gap, concerned experts decided to screen a documentary called Screen Agers: Growing up in the Digital Age which took place on the 21st and 22nd of July at the Little Theatre.
The Award-winning documentary, released last year by a US-based filmmaker, Delaney Ruston, probes into the vulnerable corners of family life and depicts messy struggles over social media, video games, academics and Internet addiction. Parents, guardians and children were in attendance and discussion followed after the screening.
“Once a child is used to gadgets when they miss them, they become unhappy and furious to the extent that they can even engage in a fight simply because they want a smartphone to play game,” says Dr Kaduri, the addiction psychiatrist at Muhimbili. She says excessive use of digital devices can be as bad to the child’s brain as taking heroine or other drugs.
Dr Mkopi says prevention is better than cure. He says for those children that are not yet exposed to screen its better if they are not exposed to the use of these devices. “It’s absolutely prohibited to expose a less than 2-year old child to screen.”
For those already exposed, Dr Mkopi advises parents to slowly disengage them from the screen by introducing them to physical activity like exercises.