MXit - a free social media platform created in South Africa in 2004 - has captured the time and attention of young people, eclipsing homework, movies and computer games. There are millions of registered user accounts. And what are most of these teenagers and young people talking about? ... Dating.
Mobile phones are just about everywhere here in South Africa.... and like in many other countries, people seem to be glued to them - especially teenagers. And it appears that topping the chatting list is MXit - the social media platform.
The United Nations Children's Fund, UNICEF, conducted a survey to better understand how young people spend their free time. MXit was the answer for 30 percent of respondents - far more popular than watching TV, talking with family and friends, reading and - not surprisingly - homework.
UNICEF South Africa Communications Officer Kate Pawelczyk says it is important to understand just how the growth of social media is impacting our children. “The main findings of the UNICEF MXit survey are that young people are spending a lot of time on MXit. They’re talking mostly to friends and family and most often about issues of love life and dating. And a lot of MXit users are interacting with strangers," she said. "We believe that we should be educating young people more and more about how to behave in the online space, to make sure that they’re always safe.”
The study indicates South African teens would rather chat on MXit than actually meet friends in person. It’s something 18-year-old MXit user Nicole Tiedemann considers a problem.
“People are not able to be social because of Mxit. And you’d find people sitting at home on their phone, rather than coming out to a movie. I think a lot of people also don’t get undivided attention. So your relationships do take strain, because you’re not focusing on that person, you’re focusing on ten people at once,” said Tiedemann.
The study found the most common topics on MXit are love lives and dating- even for people in their 20s. 25-year-old Luyanda Mtuli says he mostly uses MXit to stay in touch with his girlfriend - but it is good in other ways too. “I have my girlfriend on MXit so (laughs) I have to talk about my love life. But on the other hand, some people do use it as a form of information as in like what’s happening at school, what’s happening or at work, what you up to lately, stuff like that," she explains. "Like it keeps you informed with what’s happening in the world. So it’s not only about your love life.”
Anonymity on the user platform can be as much a part of the attraction as it a danger. Users need not reveal their real name, age, location or gender. Parents worry their children may not be interacting with whom they think they are.
The U.N.'s Kate Pawelczyk says children sometimes have a false sense of comfort on social media platforms. “If they are interacting with these strangers, lets make sure they’re not giving out any info that they shouldn’t be, that they’re not agreeing to meet in person, not giving out phone numbers, ID numbers, atm pins, that they’re not compromising their safety in any way,” she stated.
South African teachers have also raised the alarm that so-called “MXit speak” is creeping into classrooms. The shorthand often appearing on the social networks is now in school essays making it difficult to teach kids proper language skills.
Despite all these concerns, social media is here to stay.
18-year-old Nicole says she relies heavily on MXit as a low-cost way to stay in touch. “I am addicted to MXit," Tiedemann admited, "It’s mostly to save airtime. It’s got to a point where you’re just going online in order to tell someone something, in order to not call and waste airtime.”
The U.N. report issued this week is part of UNICEF's youth digital citizenship and safety project.