Allow me to be both vague and specific this week. A teenager, let’s call him Vlad, went ballistic this week and netizens responded by going viral. The incident reveals how moralistic, judgemental, detached and uncommitted the Kenyan middle class can be at the same time.
Five videos of profanity, sexism, sex talk, references to trolling, bullying and intimidation was all it took for this soon-to-be-a-man to become, in his own words, publicly famous. Directed at another female student, the videos provoked a barrage of chatroom comments by those familiar with the boy, family and school. The messages hit all our stereotypes and prejudices.
The absentee single mother, Nigerian boyfriend, too much alcohol not enough face time parenting, the anti-gay jabs and all of this, in a devoutly Catholic school? Within hours, his videos were trending on adult social media platforms. Within days, a newspaper had devoted an editorial opinion.
Watching the videos and in particular his recorded public apology was deeply uncomfortable. Shock, anger, jokes and unsolicited “expert” advice laced our over-sharing this week. If the intention was to stop this type of behaviour, it had the opposite effect. Within hours of Vlad’s apology, a male cousin had recorded and released his own stream of abuse hoping to cash in his cousin’s moment of fame. Why did this set of short self-recorded and amateurish recordings pre-occupy us so much? More interestingly, why did we share so much that we enabled them to go viral?
The incident tells us much about the popular culture of teenagers, the power of digital technology and the fault-lines of the middle-class. Many social studies have demonstrated that Kenyan children are increasingly pre-occupied with sex, money and fun. This was the case when I was a teenager. It is probably also universal today.
Sixty five per cent of the urban population between the ages of 15 and 24 are sexually active, less than 21 per cent are using contraceptives and this group now accounts for 30 of new HIV infections. Two out of three youth have smartphones, regularly access the internet and at least half have received or sent text messages with sexual undertones or images. We live in a very sexualised environment and our teenagers are not exempt.
Navigating today’s fixed gender, sexuality, disability, ethnic and class online prejudices is as real as playing kaskumu in our school playgrounds. Most teenagers are desperate not to be left out, excluded or ridiculed. Protecting egos against discrimination and exclusion drives both our children’s greatest fears and the rampant cyber-bullying they engage in.
Smart-phone and internet bans for children and tougher laws will not solve this twenty-first century challenge alone. Threats, insults and intimidation are already crimes under the National Cohesion and Integration Act (2008), Computer Misuse and Cybercrimes Act (2017) and the Penal Code. Our schools and some of our homes enforce rules on smart-phones and internet use. Rather than producing more empowered and engaged pre-citizens, the proliferation of social networking platforms, tools and information is accelerating FOMO (the fear of missing out), toxic hate-speech and digital depression for most.
To paraphrase a familiar expression, it is not in banishing the darkness that creates safe, inclusive and ethical online spaces. We have to bring light to those spaces. Not public condemnation, bans and expulsions, but content and activities that create hope, inclusion and a societal vision.
One of my favorite initiatives is Well Told Story. Listening to and working with teenagers, they have developed initiatives like Tupange, Jongo Love radio program and the Shujaaz comic book. These platforms are provoking frank and inspiring conversations on male responsibility, adolescent sexuality, self-esteem and self-respect. We have to find ways to broaden these conversations to place teenagers at the center of protecting the planet against harmful climate change, the huge inequalities within and between societies and the millions that face economic poverty and social discrimination.
As the Global Climate Summit opens in New York, it is inspiring to know that young people like Greta Thunberg, Paul Mutuku, Nico Bergmans, Miriam van den Berg, Lesein Mutunkei, the Fridays for Future global movement and the Climate Action for Kenya will be among the loudest voices. Rather than allowing our teenagers to sit on the roofs of apartment buildings thinking they have a view of their city, we have to offer them a real view of their world and the opportunity to protect and improve it.
First published Saturday Standard, September 21, 2019. Kindly reproduced here with permission from the Standard Group