Geneva, Switzerland – Young adults in Ghana, Kenya and Vietnam are accessing health information through Google and social media on their mobile phones, resulting in both empowerment and rights abuses, according to a new report published today at the Geneva Graduate Institute. A related policy brief from civil society calls on health advocates of all ages and civil society to mobilize to promote human rights in the use of data and digital technologies.
The report, Digital Health and Rights of Young Adults in Ghana, Kenya and Vietnam, is based on qualitative research with 174 young people and 33 experts in all three countries using a transnational participatory action research approach, in which communities participated in the study.
Key findings include:
- Young people increasingly use social media and Google searches as sources of health information and support
- Innovative social media influencers create "safe spaces" and "online families" on Facebook and WhatsApp to enable young adults to access health information
- Seventy percent of women across the study described harms linked to searching for health information online, as did a majority of participants who identified as transgender or nonbinary
- Reported harms included misdiagnosis, censorship, verbal abuse, threats, extortion, and physical violence
- Young women also expressed concerns about privacy of their web searches and menstrual tracking apps, given that abortion is illegal in Ghana and Kenya
"Our study is one of the first to provide empirical evidence of how young adults use mobile phones for health information in Ghana, Kenya and Vietnam, and what they see as the impact on their health and rights," said Prof. Sara ("Meg") Davis, Senior Researcher of the Digital Health and Rights Project. "To realize the promise of digital health for young people in their diversity demands action to strengthen laws and policies, with the active participation of young people."
The policy brief by civil society includes recommendations to national governments, donors such as the Global Fund, and UN and other global health agencies to strengthen youth participation and human rights protections in digital health. These calls were shared with Dr. Tedros, head of WHO and Winnie Byanyima, head of UNAIDS in an advocacy letter signed by civil society activists and academic experts.
A second phase of the study has been launched in Bangladesh and Colombia.
Researchers, social media influencers and WHO officials will discuss the findings and policy recommendations in a launch webinar on November 22nd hosted by the Graduate Institute: Digital justice: How social media is transforming young people's health and rights. The webinar will take place from 14:00-15:30 CET. Webinar registration is open to the public here.
The Digital Health and Rights Project Consortium consists of social scientists and civil society experts from the Geneva Graduate Institute, BRAC University (Bangladesh), Universidad de los Andes (Colombia), KELIN (Kenya), STOPAIDS (UK), the Global Network of People Living with HIV (GNP+) and two national networks of people living with HIV in Ghana and Vietnam. The consortium is hosted by the Global Health Centre (GHC) of the Geneva Graduate Institute. The project is advised by a Policy Advisory Committee which includes the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health; experts from the Global Fund, UNAIDS, UNDP and WHO; scholars; and youth activists. Funding is provided by Fondation Botnar and the Open Society University Network. More information is available at https://www.graduateinstitute.ch/DigitalHealth-Rights and on Twitter at @DigHealthRights.
Testimony from Digital Health and Rights of Young Adults in Ghana, Kenya and Vietnam:
“I can use my phone without being judged, like, I can access some information without worrying if someone is noticing.” – 27-year-old woman, Kenya
"I have received numerous health tips because I had a WhatsApp contact ... and said ‘Hey this is the situation. How do I go about it?’ Then somebody says ‘Okay, doing A-B-C-D will help.’" – 25-year-old man, Ghana
“Apps are creating invisible injustice between people…because there are people who don't use smartphones, and apps are creating distance for the poor who can't access basic needs.” – 30-year-old man, Vietnam
"[Our social media group] is more or less like a family, because at least we can help someone if that person is in need. If that person is maybe sick and needs some small help, maybe that person is in an abused case, we just come in. …The great benefit that we are getting out of it is the education that we are giving out, and the services they are receiving." – HIV peer outreach counselor, Ghana
"One of my friends posted on Facebook that she feels cold, headache and what could be the problem? Just asking in Kisumu Moms. The things that she was told: 'You are pregnant, you have sugar daddies,' and what and what. People started throwing words until she withdrew that post." – 25-year-old woman, Kenya
"Young people need to be trained [in] knowledge and skills related to information security... They need to know how and where to find information such as PrEP, or HIV information” – 22-year-old man, Vietnam