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Durham University

Mobile Phones and Youth in Africa [Ghana, Malawi, South Africa]

Mobile Phones and Youth in Africa [Ghana, Malawi, South Africa]

A research project funded by the UK Economic and Social Research Council and the UK Department for International Development

This research project, which commenced in August 2012, is exploring how the rapid expansion of mobile phone usage is impacting on young lives in sub-Saharan Africa. It builds directly on our previous research on children’s mobility within which baseline quantitative data and preliminary qualitative information was collected on mobile phone usage (2006-2010) across 24 research sites, as an adjunct to our wider study of children’s physical mobility and access to services.

In this study our focus is specifically on mobile phones and we cover a much wider range of phone-related issues, including changes in gendered and age patterns of phone use over time; phone use in building social networks (for instance to support job search); impacts on education, livelihoods, health status, safety and surveillance, physical mobility and possible connections to migration, youth identity, image, and questions of exploitation and empowerment associated with mobile phones.

Mixed-method, participatory youth-centred studies have been conducted in the same 24 sites as in our earlier work across Ghana, Malawi and South Africa (urban, peri-urban, rural, remote rural, in two agro-ecological zones per country). We have built on the baseline data for 9-18 year-olds gathered in 2006-2010, through repeat and extended studies, but also included additional studies with 19-25 year-olds (to capture changing usage and its impacts as our initial cohort move into their 20s).

The country research teams have included our core academic researchers and some of the young peer researchers who participated in our previous study, together with additional support from The Children's Institute, University of Cape Town.

Very sadly, our key researcher coordinating field studies in Malawi in this project, James Milner, died in September 2015, following a car accident. This has been a substantial blow to the whole project team, as well as to the Centre for Social Research at the University of Malawi, where he was based.

Dissemination and impact

Project information has been disseminated and advice gained through 6-monthly meetings of Country Consultative Groups (including relevant ministries, NGOs, network providers and academics, together with country researchers), through Project Steering Group meetings in the UK, and through presentations to academics, policy makers and practitioners at numerous in-country and international conferences and meetings.

We held a valuable review workshop at the University of Cape Town [November 25-29, 2014]. This included participants from each country group, including young researchers, three of whom were part of our original child peer-researcher team from the 2006-10 child mobility study. These former child researchers also presented the country reports for Malawi and Ghana at the external Stakeholder Meeting which formed part of the review meeting.

Drawing on our analyses of the quantitative and qualitative data collected, and triangulation between our diverse data sets, we continue in our efforts at impact on policy and practice. Research findings have been presented back to communities at the research sites and at Country Consultative Group meetings. At community and CCG level, our research questions and discussions with young people, teachers, parents and other community members have helped raise awareness of the positive and negative aspects of youth mobile phone use in all three countries. Issues such as pornography, the impact of cheap night call rates and random calling have been widely debated.

UCT Children’s Institute has worked with the team to develop appropriate Policy/Information Briefs, while the International Forum for Rural Transport and Development has published a newsletter (December 2015) presenting the project findings on how phone usage impacts on transport and mobility. Papers on mobile phones and education, health, mobility practices and intergenerational relations have now been published in international journals; further papers are in preparation and under review.

All of these documents - the published journal papers, the Children’s Institute Information Briefs, the IFRTD newsletter and a Findings summary document - are available under the ‘Relevant Papers' link on the left hand column of this page.

Contact Details

Durham University,
Dawson Building,
South Road,
DH1 3LE,
Telephone: +44 (0)191 334 2000