Social media addiction takes toll on academic performance

Research shows that African students spend too much time on social media. This not only negatively affects their studies, but also their mental health. And the addiction seems to be rising, increasing the risk of depression and anxiety.

Essentially, social media platforms are web-based sites that allow a person to build interactions with other people and share or exchange information and ideas in virtual communities and networks. Some of the popular social media platforms in Africa include Facebook, Telegram, WhatsApp, Instagram, TikTok, Discord, Snapchat, WeChat, Pinterest, Twitter, and YouTube.

But, unlike the traditional forms of internet-based communication whereby users are passive consumers of information, social media platforms are multidirectional and allow instant messaging, social networking, micro-blogging, and photograph and video-sharing in real time.

In this regard, researchers are worried that many university students in Sub-Saharan Africa and beyond are spending too much time hooked to those networks, even when they are supposed to be reading in the libraries or attending in-person lectures.

Facebook addiction rising in Ethiopia

Highlighting the issue among Ethiopian university students, Aman Dule, a lecturer in psychiatry at the University of Mettu, found that most students are addicted to social media platforms, especially Facebook, which is used by about 96% of students.

In the study, ‘Facebook addiction and affected academic performance among Ethiopian university students: A cross-sectional study’, that sampled 422 undergraduate students at the University of Mettu, Dule and his associates found that 67.2% of students were addicted to Facebook. The study was published on 6 February 2023 in PLOS ONE, an open-access, peer-reviewed scientific journal.

According to the researchers, the aim of the study was to evaluate the extent of Facebook addiction and its relation to the academic performances of undergraduate students and find ways to challenge the problem that could cause disruptions in academic achievement. “No study had examined Facebook addiction in Ethiopia as far as we could determine, and this study was considered a pioneer in the country,” Dule stated.

South Africans among the most active internet users

On average, the students spent 67 minutes daily on Facebook and most of those addicted to the social platform were found to have poor study habits and expressed low self-esteem. Other addicted students, according to the study, had depressive or anxiety symptoms.

Investigating the role of social media in student lives at the University of the Free State in South Africa, Dr Ruth Wario, a senior lecturer of computer science and informatics, found that social media platforms were highly patronised by the students at her university.

In the paper, ‘Investigating Use and Impact of Social Media on Student Academic Performance: Case of a university in South Africa’ that she presented at a conference on computer science and information systems held in July 2022 in Lisbon, Portugal, Wario noted that students were spending too much time on social media platforms daily.

Approximately a third (32%) of respondents indicated that they spent 6-8 hours on social media on a daily basis, 31% spent 3-5 hours, while 28% spent more than eight hours on social media each day. Of the respondents, 9% spent between one and two hours a day on social media.

“Because of the long hours spent on social media platforms, 64% of respondents indicated social media had a negative impact on their academic performance in contrast to 4% of respondents that disagreed,” stated the study.

Wario found that WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube (in that order) were the most dominant social media platforms among students. Her study is consistent with findings in the Global State of Digital Report that indicates that South Africans are major users of the internet. According to the Digital 2022 Global Overview Report, South Africans spent on average 10.46 hours a day on the internet.

Excessive use has pitfalls

In an article published on 13 July 2017 in the Journal of Social Sciences, three researchers from the department of sociology at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa argued that, whereas social media platforms offer university students opportunities to connect with several interesting social networks as well as establish relationships with potential friends, university colleagues and campus organisations, excessive use had pitfalls.

The study, ‘Social Media Use and Academic Performance of Undergraduate Students in South African Higher Institutions: The case of the University of Zululand’, indicated that students were spending more time on WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram than on Wikipedia.

The researchers noted that time on task is important for academic performance and students who spend more time on social media ultimately have less time for academic work, leading to lower grades. The researchers advised students to reserve weekends for social media usage, while the other days of the week should be for academic activities.

“We recommend that students should invest more time in visiting the library and reading books for more information regarding their subjects or learning modules,” they said.

Researchers agree that, while the internet is a revolutionary communication technology that would provide students with opportunities to improve learning, excessive use has a negative impact on academic performance.

According to Wario, some of the prevailing problems affecting university students with regard to excessive use of social media platforms are addiction, time consumption, cyberbullying, social isolation, monophobia and poor academic performance.

Pre-emptive counselling needed

Christian Amoah of the department of behavioural sciences at Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST) in Ghana and co-researchers from institutions in various African countries, noted a large number of students in that institution suffered from internet addiction at different levels of severity. In the study, ‘Internet Addiction and Correlates Among Tertiary Students in a Sub-Saharan African Country – Case of KNUST, Ghana: A Follow-Up Study’, Amoah and co-authors noted that, out of a sample of 1,165 students, 36.2% were ‘normal’ internet users, and 39%, 19%, and 1.1% were mildly, moderately and severely addicted to the internet, respectively. The 4.7% was not known. The article was published in the Journal of Science and Technology (Ghana) on 31 August 2022.

These researchers expressed concerns that, while 1% of the sampled students needed psychotherapeutic intervention, 58% with mild and moderate addiction may need pre-emptive counselling since they stand the chance of developing severe internet addiction.

To understand the scope and magnitude of internet addition in Africa and more so among university students, Dr Francky Teddy Endomba, a psychiatrist and the head of research at the Medical Mind Association in Cameroon and his associates from several universities in France, Belgium and the UK, conducted an analysis of data from Egypt, Ethiopia, Morocco, Nigeria, South Africa, Tanzania and Tunisia between 2013 and 2021.

For their study, ‘Prevalence of internet addiction in Africa: A systematic review and meta-analysis’, data was mostly collected from PubMed, a peer-reviewed journal on health issues and Cochrane Library, a collection of high-quality publications on healthcare. The researchers classified 22 studies that had 13,365 participants of which 84% were university students.

Addiction rate highest in Northern Africa

The pooled prevalence rate of internet addiction in Northern Africa was 44.6%, which was significantly higher than the prevalence rate of 31% in Sub-Saharan Africa. The study revealed that there was no major difference between the two regions in terms of severe internet addiction. “The pooled frequencies of internet addiction were also not significantly different between females and males,” stated Endomba and his associates.

What is emerging is that a large number of university students in Africa are increasingly using social media platforms for enjoyment and partly to escape from everyday worries. But, in doing so, it appears that many students lose their sense of time as they get engrossed in those sites to the extent that nothing else matters to them, even their studies.

In this context, the allure of social media platforms, especially their capacity to create curiosity and the desire to keep someone immersed in activities, is not only driving many university students to lower psychological well-being but also causing them to under-perform academically.