How Girls Use Mobile Social Networks -- and Implicatins for M-Engagement: An Interview with Tanja Bosch

Posted by fredericknoronha on Oct 10, 2008

South Africa is a hotbed of mobile social innovation. From a depression-and-anxiety group  helping teens via SMS, to assisting with compliance for tuberculosis medication, and the 'cellphones for HIV'  programm we have described earlier, diverse health initiatives are findings ways of using mobile phones. 

Dr Tanja Bosch-Ogada, a lecturer at the Centre for Film and Media Studies at the University of Cape Town has been working on the issue of cellphones for social impact for a while. She is a speaker in the workshop on 'Women and Mobiles' at MobileActive08.

There's good reason for this mobile innovation. Few Africans have access to the Internet -- only one in 700, compared to one in four Europeans.

"The number of people with access to high-speed internet connectivity here and elsewhere across Africa are still too low to allow the widespread success of internet based applications, outside of telecentres set up specifically for this purpose," says Dr Bosch-Ogada in an interview with

In contrast, mobile subscribers are growing phenomenally. In 2007, Africa added over 60 million new mobile subscribers. Mobile phones represented 90 percent of all phone subscribers.

She suggests: "Cell phones are emerging in South Africa as a widespread and popular technology; and as such, it seems likely that they will be successfully applied both in the provision of healthcare, as well as in messaging and communication campaigns. Cellphone-based services may not necessarily be more successful on their own, but together with other media may help in the provision of effective multimedia campaigns."

Bosch has also done very interesting ethnographic research, most recently focusing on girls' usse of mobile social networks like MXit.  In a recent article in the Commonwealth Journal of Youth Studies, Dr Bosch-Ogada explores adolescent girls' use of MXit, a cellphone based instant messaging service, in Cape Town, South Africa.

Her study suggests that girls talk on cellphones more than boys; and that  girls use cellphones to maintain a kind of "intimacy in their social relations". Dr Bosch-Ogada explains how girls used their cell phones for social networking, peer support, and support with their relationship with their parents. 

Bosch notes in her research a project at the Meraka Institute, a national research centre called MobilED that looks at the use of mobile technologies for formal and informal learning.

Laurie Butgerit, a researcher there who will run an open space session at MobileActive08, started a “Doctor Math” on MXit - a tutor helping with math problems.  Bosch notes:

[Doctor Math] taps into the facility that allows MXit cellphone users to communicate with online computer based chat programmes like MSN or Yahoo Chat. They set up an account at and called their facility, which targeted learners who needed help with maths homework after school hours when teachers were not available. Researchers found that the youth who participated (their sample was limited to one high school) were surprised to find that they could use their phones “as a tool instead of a toy or convenience,”  and found that learners developed a social relationship with the anonymous Dr Maths, often logging just to say hello, or asking for counseling, even though tutors were prohibited from asking or answering personal questions. Learners accessed Dr Maths via MXit on their cellphones, while the tutors were responding via computer based chat software."

This kind of researchis essential to track for many NGOs as well to understand better mobile use patterns in particular target populations for services or engagement. We are very pleased to have both Dr. Bosch and Dr. Butgereit present and presenting at MobileActive08!


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