Internet Connections Pipe More Envy, Disappointment into African Lives


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As online use grows in Africa, some struggle to maintain a sense of contentment and self-esteem.

LUSAKA, ZAMBIA – This scenario has become familiar wherever people regularly use social media: Rebecca Sakala, a secretary and teacher in Lusaka, Zambia’s capital, sees an online post in which a friend announces that he has landed a dream job. Instead of simply feeling happy for him, her heart sinks.

“It feels really bad and affects the mind,” she says. “I ask myself, ‘Wow! We have the same qualifications, and this person has gotten (the job) and I failed. What’s wrong with me?’”

In some parts of Africa, Internet connectivity and social media use rates are among the highest in the world. In others, Internet penetration remains comparatively low.

In Kenya, 39 per 100 people have access to the Internet, and in Nigeria it is 38 per 100 people, according to 2013 data from the World Bank.

In Africa, Internet use is about 15 percent. Only 15.4 per 100 people in Zambia have access to the Internet.

Estimates vary by tracking organization, but most reports show the same thing: Internet use in much of Africa is growing slowly.

Mobile broadband subscriptions on the continent grew from 14 million in 2010 to an estimated 172 million this year, according to the International Telecommunication Union, the United Nations’ agency for information and communication technologies.

That means many Africans are only now discovering the downsides of social media use. The phenomenon is already well-known in countries with greater connectivity.

A 2013 study published in the journal Public Library of Science, a U.S. based nonprofit publisher and advocacy organization, found that the more people used Facebook, the worse they felt. Using Facebook for two weeks significantly reduced the life satisfaction levels of study participants.

“On the surface, Facebook provides an invaluable resource for fulfilling the basic human need for social connection,” the study’s abstract reports. “Rather than enhancing well-being, however, these findings suggest that Facebook may undermine it.”

People who regularly compare their fortunes to those of online friends put themselves at risk of experiencing low self-esteem, says Mwiya Imasiku, a clinical psychologist at the University Teaching Hospital, Zambia’s largest referral hospital.

If left unchecked, low self-esteem can lead to serious psychological disorders, including depression, eating disorders, substance abuse and anxiety, he says.

“Competition – where you compare yourself with another – is unhealthy,” Imasiku says. “We need to learn to appreciate small, little gains that we have achieved. Compare oneself with oneself.”

Rebecca Sakala’s sister, Christabel Sakala, has also experienced the dark side of social media. She feels low and anxious when she sees announcements of friends’ engagements and marriages on Facebook, she says.

“I ask myself, ‘When is it going to be my turn? When am I going to be happy?’” Christabel Sakala says.

The dishonesty that flourishes on social media also poses a risk to emotional well-being.

Imasiku once treated a patient who fell in love with a man she met online. When she discovered the extent to which the man of her dreams had lied about himself, Imasiku says she suffered a mental breakdown.

“It was very serious because she thought she had found the right man that she would marry,” he says.

The ill effects of social media engagement can be especially persistent in African countries where people are disinclined to seek professional help for psychiatric disorders, Imasiku says.

In Zambia, where the culture values family support above counseling, people who experience mental distress are apt to talk to relatives or pray instead of going to a mental health professional.

Even when Zambians choose to seek mental health treatment, they find it hard to come by.

There are only about four psychiatrists for the country’s then 13.2 million people, according to the World Health Organization’s 2011 Mental Health Atlas.

African families need to develop a culture in which it’s OK to seek help from psychologists, says Juliana Banda, a counselor at the Young Women’s Christian Association, an international nonprofit that offers job and health training as well as counseling geared toward women’s empowerment.

“Technology is here, and you can’t stop people using it,” she says. “It’s supposed to help us to grow, but we need to educate people – especially young ones – about how to use it in order to build them (up).”