Intergenerational relations and the power of the cell phone: perspectives on young people's phone usage in Sub-Saharan Africa

Intergenerational relations and the power of the cell phone: perspectives on young people's phone usage in Sub-Saharan Africa

Cell phones present new forms of sociality and new possibilities of encounter for young people across the globe. Nowhere is this more evident than in sub-Saharan Africa where the scale of usage, even among the very poor, is remarkable.

This paper reflects on the inter-generational encounters which are embedded in young people’s cell phone interactions, and consider the wider societal implications, not least the potential for associated shifts in the generational balance of power. An intriguing feature of this changing generational nexus is that while many young people’s phone-based interactions, from their mid-teens onwards, are shifting away from the older generation towards friendship networks in their own age cohort, at the same time they are repositioning themselves – or becoming repositioned – as family information hubs, as a consequence of their phone expertise.

The paper draws on mixed-methods research with young people aged c. 9–25 years and in-depth interviews with older age-groups in 24 sites (ranging from high density poor urban to remote rural) across Ghana, Malawi and South Africa.

Evidence suggests that a generational power-struggle is being played out on a daily basis in many urban and rural homes across the continent: recourse to subterfuge is, on both sides, an inevitable response. With increasingly cheap, imported Chinese handsets and rapid reduction in phone-related costs, however, parental control is probably slipping, especially when young people (by virtue of their phone skills) take on – or are bestowed with – a hub role in family networks. There is limited evidence, for instance, of successful surveillance by elders, since young people’s phone competency increasingly contains surveillance efforts and associated supervision. The cell phone is changing the rules regarding who interacts with whom (and how). Cell phone diffusion thus arguably marks a significant step in the intergenerational power shift in Africa from disproportionately gerontocratic and patrimonial systems towards a new, increasingly technologically-shaped era where young people – of both genders – play a much more proactive role in society.

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