In the last few months, the issue of opioid addiction among Somali youth has come to light, and there are questions about how the government is handling it. However, there is another issue that is also very damaging to the young Somali population, and that is the digital opium that is TikTok. In this article, I’m going to talk about some of the harms of social media on the Somali society, some possible solutions to the problem, and whether the government should consider banning the app.
This is a debate that has been ongoing in developed countries such as the United States of America and China for many years. Proponents of regulations talk about the impact of social media on teens and young people in general and how its addictive nature is affecting their focus on education. Critics of regulations on the other hand point to the Snowden leaks and how governments can use regulations as a way to censor people and control the masses.
While I used to be firmly in the “absolutely no regulations” camp and would even leave my phone at home to avoid being tracked by the government, I now believe that, when it comes to Somalia, maybe it’s for the greater good to introduce at least some sort of a regulation.
For a long time, I didn’t want to create a TikTok account because I didn’t want all my personal information stored on a server somewhere in China. Furthermore, I did not like the format of watching 30-second videos on end. However, after recently downloading the app, I have found that while #SomaliTikTok has some funny or educational content for teens, for the most part, it is filled with bad takes, unoriginal content, and just inane edits about nothing.
On March 1st, TikTok announced that it was setting a default time limit of 60 minutes per day for users under 18. Those under 13 would need a code entered by their parents to have an additional 30 minutes, while those between 13 and 18 could make that decision for themselves. While the effectiveness of this measure remains to be seen (it’s certainly possible, for instance, to lie about your age when registering for the app), in 2022, teens spent an average of 103 minutes per day on TikTok, beating Snapchat (72 minutes) and YouTube (67 minutes). I believe Somali teens, on average, spend at least double that time on TikTok.
For example, consider my 19-year-old cousin, whom I recently met after 10 years and who is lying next to me as I type this and scrolls past loud TikToks. Even as a just consumer, not a content creator, he averages over 8 hours a day on his phone, and almost 5 of those are spent on TikTok alone. Yes, Five hours on TikTok alone, and the other three hours on WhatsApp, Snapchat, and Facebook. This is not unique to him; while he might average more now because he is off school, this is a recurring theme for Somali youth, and it’s even more so for those that are creators and go on the live feature of the app regularly.
The USA has had its fair share of critics of TikTok, and recently the tech giant’s CEO was called to the hot seat to testify before Congress and answer whether TikTok was a Trojan horse sent to distract their youth, steal everyone’s data, and take over the world. Tristan Harris, a former Google employee, said, “It’s almost like they (China) recognise that technology is influencing kids’ development, and they make their domestic version a spinach version of TikTok, while they ship the opium version to the rest of the world.”.
Although the Somali government does not have the means to implement regulations and expensive identity-identifying tools to verify people’s ages before signing up, even if it did, it’s a slippery slope for a government to censor social media as it might lead to censoring opposing views. On the other hand, governments have a responsibility to protect citizens from potential risks posed by social media platforms, especially to the youth. Perhaps, an innovative and cost-effective ways to manage this issue is needed.
Attention is a precious commodity in today’s world of constant digital distractions. Look at the rising “TikTokification”. Features such as YouTube shorts and Instagram reels are on the rise and are all competing for that last second of our attention.
Have you ever had to shout “waryaa, waryaa!” to check if the teen you were speaking to is still listening to what you were saying? Social media’s effects on the brain are likely culprit behind this phenomenon. Nobel-winning economist Herbert Simon foresaw this many years ago when he said, “A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.”.
The reduction in the attention span of students can have a serious impact on their ability to learn. Constant interruptions and digital distractions make it difficult for students to retain information, and if they are only accustomed to receiving information in small pieces, they may struggle to understand complex concepts and engage in critical thinking.
It is also no secret that Somalia needs “deep” workers, as Carl Newton puts it in his highly acclaimed book about productivity called Deep Work. “Deep work refers to the state of peak concentration that lets you learn complex things and create quality work quickly”. We simply cannot know the value of deep work if we know very little about the harms of screen times and distractions can have on our lives and its impacts on the value of our work and education.
In the same book Carl Newport says this about social media “These services aren’t necessarily, as advertised, the lifeblood of our modern connected world. They’re just products, developed by private companies, funded lavishly, marketed carefully, and designed ultimately to capture then sell your personal information and attention to advertisers. They can be fun, but in the scheme of your life and what you want to accomplish, they’re a lightweight whimsy, one unimportant distraction among many threatening to derail you from something deeper. Or maybe social media tools are at the core of your existence. You won’t know either way until you sample life without them.”
Social media can help introduce new people to your culture, for instance, one search of #SomaliTikTok on TikTok and you will be bombarded with non-Somalis performing dhaanto or eating canjeero and so on. But, social media can also be harmful as it exposes young people to a constant stream of innate degenerate content that may not reflect their own cultural values and beliefs. It can also create a pressure for people to conform to the norms of the zeitgeist and whateverism of the day.
This is also evident by recent studies that show that now in America, 1 in 5 Gen Z-er identifies as trans. While I’m not one to believe in low hanging-tech related conspiracy theories, I couldn’t help but notice the heavily promoted gender ideology on the platform. Why else would I get a notification every time that the trans activist Jeffrey Marsh has uploaded a new video when I only looked at his channel once when he was involved in a grooming controversy? Furthermore, why would a Chinese company promote trans ideology so heavily when in their own country they put a ban on effeminate men to appear on tv?
While I do not claim to have all the answers, I believe one potential solution is for our community or the government to invest in platforms of our own. These platforms could be social media-type platforms where the content is moderated or at least the ones given more priority are the more authentic and engaging ones. They could also incorporate microlearning to avoid cognitive overload and reduce stress on the limbic system, which is always in a fight or flight mode.
Somali society is a homogenous one. We speak the same language, have the same culture, value, and beliefs and having a platform of our own is a real possibility. This to me was confirmed recently when I found out about Somalispot.com, a Somali only reddit-type forum where there are discussions of all topics that are related to Somalia. The platform has thousands of Somali users.
While I also acknowledge, and for the most part, against outright banning of things, we have to think about how the daily products we consume are shaping us, and more importantly, we should know from where and whom they originate. Like the Father of propaganda Edward Bernays says in his book Propaganda “We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of.”…“We are dominated by the relatively small number of persons who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind.”.
In conclusion, while the debate on whether to regulate or ban social media platforms like TikTok is ongoing in developed countries, we and our people in power must address the issue of digital addiction among our young population. I’m not writing this to advocate for censorship or banning but to raise an awareness, and to, at the very least, get the conversation started.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or positions of this publication