The dark side of the digital age in the lives of young Ugandans

By Guest Writer

Opinion: In recent years, the rise in the use of digital platforms has given birth to a sneaky crisis among the young, particularly in relation to suicide and poor social decision-making.

Despite suicide prevention programs and therapy by the government and civil society, suicide remains a public health issue in Uganda lately among young people between the ages of 9 and 30.

There is growing evidence that online activity has influenced suicide-related behavior.

Suicide has been identified not only as an individual phenomenon but also as being influenced by social and environmental factors.

The use of social media throughout the 21st century has grown exponentially. According to the report, in 2023, over 11.7 million Ugandans had access to the internet at the start of 2023, and relating to Uganda’s population, which constitutes 78% of the total population, young people, it is evident enough that the biggest percentage of the users were young people. For this reason, although these platforms were intended to allow people to connect virtually, they have been the single biggest cause of suicidal attempts among young Ugandans.

Just as in traditional spaces, the online world is filled with both risks and rewards. However, unlike physical environments, the virtual space provides an endless stretch of opportunities for anonymity and isolation, which have unwaveringly affected these young people’s mental health.

The pressure to imitate the online behavioral habits of holding luxury gadgets, owning expensive cars, dressing perfectly, and residing in expensive apartments in Munyonyo, Muyenga, and many more areas, like the already-made colleagues they refer to as “planned kids,” often flags the comfort of invisibility and lack of accountability that accompany online interactions.

Singling out social media platforms, the convergence of explicit content,cyberbullying, online grooming, sexting, and a myriad other online harms play significant roles in this tragedy.

Social media in Uganda has successfully woven an unrealistic world where young people strive to fit in, especially females. When they fail to resonate with the “happy, perfect” world these platforms project, it always results in feelings of inadequacy, self-hatred, and, in certain instances, suicidal tendencies.

“Sexting, Selfies, and Self-Harm: Young People, Social Media, and the Performance of Self-Development” by Fleur Gabriel is seminal research that states that the direct relationship between the usage of social media platforms among young people and reported feelings of anxiety, depression, and decreased overall well-being has increased sparingly without notice.

In not many months, Uganda’s social media, especially the “X” platform, formerly known as Twitter, has been awash with many sexual and nude content of different young women, pressing a horrifying spotlight on the ethical responsibility of our society, especially parents and the government ministries of ICT and National Guidance, the Ministry of Ethics and Integrity, as well as the education institutions.

Online games and gambling websites trap young people in a vicious cycle of addiction and virtual rewards, influencing their decision-making capabilities. A recent study in the British Journal of Psychiatry (Pitt et al., 2023) argues that in-game rewards have triggered excitement among young gamers, leading to addictive behavior and fostering poor decision-making. Last year, we saw over 6,000 Ugandans lose over Shs4.5 billion in a football investment scam known as “BLQ,” with many being university students who invested their tuition fees.

This operated like a football betting site where users would suggest fixtures and predict their scores, but the user would be in business if the company predicted wrongly on a match.

However, it was the biggest shock in the lives of the young Ugandans, who were left crying later in October after the scamming company unexpectedly closed business in Uganda.

This alarms experts who agree that these are critical components creating the rising tide of young suicides and misguided decisions.

The way this space is used or abused plays the ultimate role in the user’s safety. Youth engagement with digital resources in Uganda needs to be monitored and guided.

Fostering digital resilience, propagating cyber hygiene, and creating safe online environments are key to exploiting the wonders of this borderless world.

While society progresses to fully comprehend and address this urban issue, it is obligatory on us to empower these young individuals with knowledge of the potential dangers lurking in virtual space and to promote the healthy use of these platforms, thereby molding them into the digital citizens of tomorrow. And maybe then we can repurpose this digital Pandora’s box into an asset rather than a liability.

The author is Gladys Rosette Nandutu, a concerned citizen.

Disclaimer: As UG Reports Media LTD, we welcome any opinion from anyone if it’s constructive for the development of Uganda. All the expressions and opinions in this write-up are not those of UG Reports Media Ltd. but of the author of the article.

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