By Gertrude Pswarayi
Spending hours a day at local Internet cafés, many youth in Zimbabwe say they feel out of touch if they don’t check their Facebook accounts regularly. Some admit to spending as much as $3 per day in order to keep up to date with their Facebook pages.
Pertinacious Bowden, 21, a college student, says the social networking site Facebook has completely changed her lifestyle. Her routine now includes spending three to four hours a day at a local Internet café chatting with friends and relatives inside and outside the country on Facebook.
“It is like I have been trapped in a dungeon for years, and suddenly I am thrust into the middle of an endless crowd,” she says. “Since I opened a Facebook account last year, I have met scores of friends, some of whom I had lost touch with over the years.”
Bowden also says that she has managed to connect with relatives who are in the Diaspora. Before the advent of Facebook, it was difficult for her to communicate with them regularly.
“I have some relatives who reside in South Africa, Botswana, the United Kingdom and United States of America,” she says. “For years, we were not communicating. But now, we chat every day, updating each other about our situations.”
A jovial Bowden says that in addition to chatting with her friends and relatives, she uses Facebook to be in constant touch with her fiancé.
“My fiancé works in Gweru, a city in the Midlands province,” she says. “We used to spend a long time without communicating. All that is a thing of the past because of this new technology.”
And Bowden is far from alone. She is among the scores of young people in Zimbabwe who fill the Internet cafés throughout the country. Young people in Zimbabwe are spending hours at Internet cafés in order to use Facebook to stay in touch with friends and family.
Café proprietors acknowledge that they are busier than ever thanks to this online social network. But the trend has prompted worries about the effect of excessive social media use on young people’s ability to socialize in person, with others voicing more serious fears about delinquency. Still, many here acknowledge the potential that Facebook and other social media can have on development.
By 2010, 11.5 percent of Zimbabwe’s population had access to the Internet, according to the World Bank’s most recent statistics. That number was up from 0.4 percent in 2000. Tamary Kanyume, 19, a recent high school graduate, says she feels lonely if she spends a day without checking up on her friends and relatives via Facebook.
“If I don’t check my Facebook account, I feel as if all my friends are talking behind my back,” the trendy and vivacious young woman says. “I go to Facebook to make sure that I know what all my friends are up to. Otherwise, I will lose all my friends.”
Kanyume says she used to spend more hours watching movies at Rainbow Theatre, a local movie theatre. But now, she spends more time at the local Internet café.
Admire Muringa, 27, the manager at CSU Technologies, an Internet café based in the Bulawayo central business district, says business is booming because of the increase in the number of people using social media.
“Every day, we receive scores of young people straight from school passing by this place to get an opportunity to check up on the friends on social networks,” Muringa says. “Female college students who range in age from 16 years to 29 years constitute the majority of those who patronize this Internet café.”
Muringa says business is quiet during the morning, but as soon as tertiary institutions close at 1 p.m., there is an influx of young people jostling to get a computer. Muringa says most of these young people are not interested in academic research. Rather, they are interested only in Facebook.
Shylet Mabharani, 31, an Internet administrator at Kwiknet Internet Café, says demand for Internet services has soared thanks to social media, particularly Facebook.
“Social media users spend two to three hours a day surfing the Internet-based social networks,” Mabharani says. “They spend $3 or more a day on our rates of $1 per hour of Internet surfing.”
While local youth spend some $90 per month to stay connected via Facebook, the Consumer Council of Zimbabwe, the country’s consumer watchdog, estimates that the average family of six survives on just $510 per month.
As youth here and around the world increase their hours on Facebook, some Zimbabweans are wary of the effects on face-to-face socialization. Robert Ndlovu, 39, a southern region coordinator for the National Association of Non-governmental Organisations, says social media has destroyed the traditional way in which young people used to interact.
“Young people used to meet face-to-face, going out on dates and had a better appreciation of their friends,” he says. “But today, all relationships are based online, creating room for deception and trickery. It is difficult to understand someone based on information on their Facebook pages because most of the time is wrong information.”
Ndlovu says that social media has reduced in-person social bonding for young people, which is crucial for them to learn how to interact and work in a group. Social media is not the ideal tool for the socialization of young people, he says, and this may lead to isolation and delinquency.
The absence of any regulations in the use of social media also leaves room for young people to say anything they want to a mass audience – even if the message is malicious, Ndlovu says. He adds that the lack of regulation also gives room for child traffickers and Satanists to lure young people to their destruction.
“We are also witnessing an increase in cases where social media is being used to pass on pornographic material,” he says. “Such misuse of social media can lead to the perversion of young people. Things that used to be a taboo are no longer so because they are awash on social media.”
Despite concerns about social media, Ndlovu says that with guidance, young people can derive a lot from this technology. He says that social media has expanded the democratic space, especially as the government maintains tight controls on the media.
“Young people now have a platform to express themselves freely,” he says. “Social media has also helped to bridge the distance created by the mass movements of Zimbabweans that has been caused by the economic challenges in the country. Young people have a platform to maintain relations with their friends who would have moved to other countries.”
Ndlovu says that his organization has conducted workshops targeting member organizations to inform them about how to implement social media into their work. The goal is for civil society organizations to then educate the citizens they work with on how to use social media for development purposes. Ndlovu served as one of the coordinators for the knowledge management training program.
The National Association of Non-governmental Organisations also operates Internet cafés around the country that member organizations can use for free. Ndlovu is in charge of the one in the southern region. The organization aims to build the capacity of civil society organizations to promote information and communication technology as a tool for socio-economic development, instead of a slippery slope of social regression. Global Press Institute
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