Friday, July 10, 2020

It’s likely Botswana has Africa’s worst Facebook addiction problem

On the list of diseases that he mentioned in what was perhaps the longest state-of-the-nation address in Botswana’s history, President Mokgweetsi Masisi left out one: Facebook addiction.

Officially, Facebook addiction is not a recognized clinical disorder and if history is any guide, the country would be waiting for cue from the west to make such recognition. The fact of the matter though is that Botswana faces the most peculiar challenge in the world with regard to Facebook use. Never subservient to the west, China has taken the most enlightened approach. A more general manual from its Ministry of Health identifies staying online for more than six hours a day, instead of working or studying, and having adverse reactions from not being able to get online, as the two major symptoms of Internet Addiction Disorder. That covers Facebook use.

Research from Nielsen, a premier United States global information and measurement company, says that Botswana has the highest rates of Internet access in Sub-Saharan Africa, beating Nigeria and KenyaMuch of such access is through Facebook, which most Batswana access through smartphones. A survey by the African Development Bank has found that Botswana has the highest rate of cellphone ownership in Africa, with some people owning more than one device. On the basis of these and other studies, the 2019 Social Progress Index ranks Botswana first among 149 countries in terms of Mobile Telephone Subscriptions.

To our knowledge, nobody has done a study on Facebook addiction in Botswana but even with no body of empirical evidence having been assembled, the physical evidence is overwhelming. Everywhere you look and much of the country, people are burying their heads in their smartphones, scrolling through and typing away furiously. The amount of time users engage in Facebook activities, like updating statuses, posting photos, commenting and “liking” posts has also been increasing with the expansion of Wi-Fi networks across the country.

In other parts of the world, this phenomenon has attracted scholarly attention. The University of Bergen in Norway has developed a psychological scale to measure Facebook addiction. Called the Bergen Facebook Addiction Scale, it has 18 items, among which the six central elements of the addiction are reflected: prominence, mood changes, tolerance, abstinence, conflict and relapse. High scores on the BFAS are linked to going to bed very late and getting up very late. The study found that anxious and socially insecure people use Facebook more, that women are at greater risk of becoming addicted, that addiction is more prevalent among younger than older users and that people who are more organised and ambitious tend not to become addicted.

Another study at the California State University in the United States found that the brains of people with compulsive urges to use Facebook show some brain patterns similar to those found in drug addicts. It also found that motorists who have a compulsive relationship with Facebook respond faster to beeps from their cellphones than to street signs.

Facebook satisfies innate human needs to stay socially connected, to be socially acknowledged or approved by others as well as to know what other people are doing. Armed with this knowledge, the people behind Facebook did something no different from what the manufacturers of commercial tobacco did – they purposefully hacked users’ brains with an expertly engineered addictive product. That has actually been acknowledged by Sean Parker, an early Facebook investor and its first president. Parker has said the following: The thought process was all about, ‘How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?’ And that means that we need to sort of give you a little dopamine hit every once in a while, because someone liked or commented on a photo or a post or whatever, and that’s going to get you to contribute more content, and that’s going to get you more likes and comments. It’s a social validation feedback loop. … You’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology.”

In case you haven’t noticed, one of the things that Facebook does is purposefully withhold likes in order than an addict can keep checking for them over and over again. The other thing it does is recycle “like” and “follow” messages to fool one into believing that their likes and follows are going up when they are really not.

For Botswana, Facebook addiction compounds an already existing problem that has proved extremely difficult to deal with and creates a new one.

According to successive publications of the Global Competitiveness Report shows, Botswana has the worst labour productivity in the world. Facebook is certainly compounding this problem because some civil servants spends a lot of their work time online than actually working. When they attend a conference or workshop, the venue will most certainly have Wi-Fi coverage – which they see as veritable permission to take up digital residence on Facebook.

Botswana’s peace and stability owe in no small part to the civility that has always characterised public discourse. There is no such civility on Facebook, where the most timid become very bold and deploy the language of violence. Violent words can only lead to violent action and it is just a matter of time before the digital violence on Facebook assumes real-life manifestation. If that happened in Myanmar with a campaign against Muslims, there is no reason why it cannot happen in Botswana. Facebook played a huge role in the just-ended general election and will certainly play a bigger role in the next election cycle when Facebook addiction would have reached epidemic levels. Plans by the government to amend the Cyber Crime Act to police errant conduct might help with the latter but there is still not so much as acknowledgement of the fact that the country with Africa’s highest rates of cellphone ownership and Internet penetration has a serious Facebook addiction problem.

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Sunday Standard July 5 – 11

Digital copy of Sunday Standard issue of July 5 - 11, 2020.