Growing up in Cape Town’s Cape Flats area through the ’80s and ’90s, poverty and unemployment were the norm. Young people dropped out of school to join gangs; violence and drug addiction were part of our everyday lives, just as in millions of communities around the world where the future seems dim. And in the case of South Africa, social and economic despair is compounded by one of the biggest HIV epidemics in the world, with 370,000 new HIV infections counted in 2012.
So, young people have plenty to block out, too often through self-destructive behavior. But with the advent of social media, I observed an alternative addiction of youth– their obsession with technology, a craze that connects them with others rather than alienates them, as some people think. I wondered: How can we harness the hope and stickiness of these connections to overcome the behaviors that ruin your life; the behaviors that for a long time ruined mine?
Tackling social problems requires a plethora of services and resources that many low-income communities don’t, or can’t, access. And technology is no silver bullet. Yet, as improbable as it sounds, it’s beginning to build bridges for teens from despair to hope. In fact, the very smartphone and Internet technology most teenagers use to browse Facebook posts, Tweet, and text their friends—the technology some fear will create a generation with attention deficit—is empowering them to get the help they need and meaningfully connect with their communities. In the seven years since I founded an innovation lab in Cape Town called Reconstructed Living Lab, which brings diverse people together around complicated social problems, I’ve seen at least three ways that technology is breaking social stigmas caused by poverty and helping youth to see themselves as part of a solution to their communities’ ills.
Many young people in poor communities, like the one where I grew up, need psychological, emotional and practical help to kick habits, cope with family dysfunction and discover and embrace their unique gifts. Yet too often, seeking help can be perceived as weakness or debility. So, many young people avoid it, even when it’s free and on their doorstep .
But technology can put that help in their hands. Texting, it turns out, is a route to young people’s hearts and minds with built-in camouflage, because most youth are on their phones all the time. And when things that are good for youth are filtered through their fixation on texts, they become acceptable to many, while allowing those faint of heart to fly under the social radar.
One such text-based application (called JamiiX), offers a way for youth to anonymously reach out to counselors located at different locations. It connects many more youth to aid than walk-in counseling could: Via text, counselors can work with 30 to 40 youth an hour. Text-based counselors can also connect conversations behind the scenes to track progress and see trends in behavior. As more young people seek counseling services, and seek help before succumbing to peer pressure or other negative influences, the stigma surrounding counseling begins to weaken. We’ve also seen youth seek in-person counseling services and other community resources, once they experience the benefits of getting help.
Just as technology can build connections between troubled youth and the help they need, it can also connect youth to helping others. Job shortages in a community don’t imply a shortage of work that needs to be done. So plenty of community-based organizations have begun to ask how technology might inspire unoccupied youth to provide the help. Here, technology is being used to message volunteer opportunities to young people as well as ways to develop their insight and skills. It’s also providing incentives to take advantage of these opportunities through gambits such as earning virtual “badges” or virtual currency for serving others.
One example where skills building and virtual reward come together is the Youth Café, a concept launched in partnership with the Cape Town government in early 2014 in the city’s Rocklands neighborhood. The café is a physical space where young women and men can find support services, job listings, and personal development courses, both online and offline. The café only accepts a virtual currency that must be earned by doing good in the community or by attending personal development workshops. To date, young people who visit the café have clocked more than 50,000 community hours. After launching last year, the café attracted the attention of leaders with designs to replicate it in other cities, both in South Africa and in places as far away and different as Uganda, Tanzania, and the UK,
Technology also can play a role in matching youth to economic opportunity. We’ve seen this in the developed world in the form of LinkedIn or other job and networking sites. In communities like the one I grew up in, barriers to finding jobs are more severe–youth often lack knowledge of what jobs are appropriate and are unable to develop even a basic resume, impeding out-of-work youth from applying. Job-seekers also often fall short on qualifications when they do apply. Ubiquitous cell-phone technology can play a role here–both connecting youth to job opportunities through a mobile, web-based platform, and also allowing youth to build more basic online profiles, using just their mobile phone to do so. Uusi is such a platform. It connects young people with local job opportunities and has forms which allow youth to build profiles that recruiters can access
Technology can empower, but it has to make sense culturally. In the case of young people, tech solutions tap into an innate desire to connect and play. Youth can use the tool glued to their ear to empower their hearts and minds.