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Social Media: Great power needs great responsibility

Time Baluwa is the coordinator of Integral Youth Development, a program that forms part of the Youth Office of the Jesuit Province in Zimbabwe. An expert in peer education, Time is spearheading a new IYD campaign called “Be switched on”. He shares with us his views on social media as a powerful weapon that can help or hurt young people today.

Every time we have open sessions with youth, we get asked questions like: “We’ve just read online that some prophet has cured AIDS and even eradicated HIV in a person. Does this mean we now have a way around the virus and AIDS?”

With great power comes great responsibility. I often recall this statement when I observe young people navigating a world replete with opportunities to get information and to express themselves. One of the most powerful has got to be social media, a means of communication enabled by lightning advances in technology.

Every global era has a major driving force that inspires and shapes it. Think of the Iron Age, when iron was smelted to make hoes and knives, and how this led to a new stage of development for mankind. In our era, technology shapes how we think, interact and increasingly how we live our lives.

In Africa, advances in the rollout of mobile networks have made the Internet and, consequently, social media applications accessible to young people. There is a dizzying array of so-called ‘apps’ out there today, among them Facebook, WhatsApp, Snapchat, Twitter, Youtube and other peer-to-peer programs that young people eagerly and expertly use to communicate.

But if social media is a powerful tool, there is no doubt that it is a double-edged one, especially where young people are concerned. On one hand, social media enables development, solidarity and networking. And perhaps this is what we see overtly. We use social media to bring ourselves closer to others, to share interests, and sometimes to promote collaborative learning and productivity.

On the other hand, social media can be a Pandora ’s Box for unwary young people. It is a means of communication that operates without the norms and safeguards that govern our relations as human beings: there is little or no censorship of content, coupled with the lure of anonymous interactions devoid of subjectivity.  

Nowadays people can easily share their own opinions on their social media accounts, about life, HIV and morality, and declare them as gospel truths. Myths are trumpeted as truths, and find fertile ground for dissemination among un-suspecting innocent youth, who are genuinely searching for information. Here is one such myth that has been shared: “Girls’ breasts have to be fondled by boys for them to grow very fast.” And another: “Chastity and Virginity are old-school words and social constructs.”

Then there are traditional healers (sangomas) and some churches implying that they can cure AIDS. They also have social platforms where they share this dangerous myth – as the typical question, quoted above, we get asked by young people thirsty for information.

We always caution young people to be smart about how they use the web and its applications. Social media is a powerful platform with great possibilities to enhance people’s lives. But we need to recognise that it also has inherent power to negatively impact people. It will lead to positive development if responsibly used, and this is a lesson that no one working with young people in today’s world can afford to forget.