Mobile minors: Social media affects how kids integrate
The glass wall of Julia Fath’s office looks out on the area where students take a 25-minute break between classes. She can watch them on their phones, playing YouTube videos of the war at home, or responding to text messages from their families.
Around the time when Fath started her job at Flucht Nach Vorn, a school for unaccompanied minors in Berlin, she found that one student watched videos of the carnage in his home country from 10 a.m., when he started class, until 12:40 p.m., when he got out.
“He never got upset, but occasionally he would stop watching and put his head down on the table because he was very sad,” Fath said.
Many of the refugees arriving in the EU are unaccompanied minors: 88,700 applied for asylum in 2015 alone. When children travel alone in an unknown country where they don’t speak the language, smart phones are their most important tool. They use Google Maps to navigate their way on foot through Europe, catch the right subway in Berlin, translate unknown phrases, or keep in contact with their family back home through various apps and social media on their devices, including WhatsApp and Skype.
The ubiquitous presence of smart phones and social media in their lives means they’re constantly bombarded by images and videos of the war and suffering they left in their home country.
“Sometimes we get the impression that they are not really here, but that their mind is with their parents and their friends back in Syria or Afghanistan,” Fath said.
A few weeks ago, the school decided not to allow students to use their phones in class anymore. But underage refugees – more than 4,000 of them live in Berlin alone – still have ample time to use social media or message friends in Syria or Afghanistan, whether during break or after they return to their living quarters.
On a warm Thursday evening, Fahd Ziban sits in his room in the Moabit district of Berlin, across from a wall covered in African masks and a tie-dye tapestry. He was placed in the apartment run by “Evin,” a social services provider, about eight months ago. Fahd’s couch is made of two wooden pallets. In the boards, he has installed a neon pink light. It illuminates his “puffy pants,” light, baggy pants he bought in Berlin.
The 17-year-old takes a puff from his Shisha and holds his phone up to his mouth, speaking in rapid Arabic.
“This is my friend in Syria and he is scared so I am trying to comfort him,” Fahd said. “I don’t want to call him because then I will hear the sounds of the war.”
One of two social workers assigned to Fahd and three other unaccompanied minors living in the apartment is Janina Herrmann. She works out of an office in the apartment during the week.
“Sometimes I see these boys watching these videos on YouTube, and it’s showing dead bodies and violence, and it is totally normal for them to see this,” she said.
Herrmann said she sometimes has to lock herself in her office and cry because these boys have been through so much. But she and her fellow social workers try not to exacerbate the feeling of drama by treating the boys like victims and telling them how sorry they feel for them.
“You have to be strict with them,” she said. “It is not about putting them in Pampers all the time.”
Fahd uses his phone to communicate with his mother. She has decided to stay in Turkey. Hermann believes it can also be a great tool to connect the newcomers to others in Berlin. They share homework assignments and plan events.
But Stephan Guerra, a manager at the Neukölln office of Evin, says he’s seen social media dependence grow in each generation of refugees, which is why he believes the cons outweigh the pros.
“If the two of us are talking to each other, there is a vibration, and you can’t communicate that over social media,” Guerra said. He’s convinced that when gestures, eyes, smiling and movement are not present, it reduces communication by about 20 or 30 percent.
On the other hand, Guerra acknowledges that for the children, Facebook and Skype are incredibly important for staying in contact with their families. They can reach out to people no matter where they are and figure out what is going on back home.
“When they hear something from Mom and Dad, and they know they are okay, it helps relax them. It is a huge weight off of their shoulders.” Guerra said.
Jafar YuSefi, a 16-year-old unaccompanied minor from Iran, has been in Berlin for about five months. He started school for the first time in his life about two months ago. He said many uneducated people in his country can text but they can’t read a book.
Three days ago, Jafar was scrolling through his Facebook page.
“I look at Facebook whenever I have time,” Jafar said. He checks up on friends and said he wants to know what is going on in his country and the world.
He found a news article about a man in Afghanistan who was shot by the Taliban two days before his wedding.
“I know it is bad to keep looking at these things because they make me sad,” Jafar said.
A few days earlier, he was moved into a camp with 85 other unaccompanied minors that he doesn’t know. Only one or two German social workers are responsible for all of them.
“When I have a problem, I have no one to talk to, that is just the way it is,” Jafar said.
For him, his phone is the only way he communicates with his parents and his other refugee friends in Berlin.
In other cases, an ongoing connection to families is more of a burden than a blessing. Guerra recalls several instances where a child’s contact with their parents, who have decided not to join it or were having a lot of trouble, had a negative impact on the kids’ ability to be present and connect with the people around them.
Janina Herrmann used the example of a crisis Fahd had recently.
“He was feeling sad about his sister, and he said he would never feel like a Berliner, and he was ready to give up and go back to Turkey to join his mom,” she said.
Both Hermann and Fahd’s German legal guardian had to sit down with him and talk him out of leaving.
“We told him don’t leave, we will miss you, you have such a bright future ahead of you,” Hermann said.
Carola Richter, an associate professor for international communications at the Free University of Berlin, recently ran a study that surveyed more than 400 refugees in Berlin about their use of social media and mobile phones. Richter, who has widely traveled in the Middle East, said she noticed a strong lack of social media literacy there.
“There is less private versus public sphere distinction, and these people share anything,” Richter said.
A lack of knowledge about what should and should not be posted and shared may lead to an unimpeded, uncensored flow of graphic videos and text messages on social media and through smartphones.
Guerra believes that kids will be traumatized all over again when they look at pictures related to the war all the time.
“I don’t want to condemn it, but I am still of the opinion that especially when taking care of unaccompanied minors you have to watch out what they use and how they use it and regulate the usage if necessary,” he said.
Fahd communicates with his friends in Syria mostly through Snapchat and Vine. They send him Ramadan snaps and shisha videos that say, “We miss you Fahd!” They never discuss the war or post about politics on Facebook.
“We are tired of everything, it makes no sense if we talk,” he said.
Fahd says he used to watch videos of the war because he was curious about what was going on.
“When I had time I would watch this stuff all the time, but then I got busy and I realized I just had to let it go.”
Fahd said the images he saw on social media would bring back good memories he had with friends and that would make him feel happy, but then he would see the war and bad stuff and he would feel very sad.
Though he’s seen many other refugees that are his age watching such videos and not being able to stop, he doesn’t think they should be regulated or censored.
“You can’t censor the TV, and we see the same stuff there,” Fahd said. “What is happening is a fact. They should know what is going on.”