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There’s more to ‘prison’ school complaints than crowded dorms

Monday September 11 2017

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At a recent wedding, I watched with amazement as a little two-year-old blackmailed his parents. 

He demanded his father’s smartphone to play some game and his father gently whispered “No”.

Then all hell broke loose. The little brat threw himself to the ground, screaming and kicking his mother with his nimble feet. 

Visibly embarrassed, his parents succumbed to their son’s tantrums and gave him what he wanted. Later, I cornered the father and told him he should not have given in to blackmail from a toddler.

For their own good, and for their parents’ peace of mind, children must know the boundaries of good and bad.  The kid should have known right there and then that it is bad manners to disturb the peace of innocent people for self-aggrandisement. 

How? By age two the parents should have taught their young ones some non-verbal cues to contain such situations.

I can remember, back in the village at a very tender age I only needed to see my mother’s posture or facial expression to know the consequences of my behaviour. 

I learnt the nonverbal language quickly because she was with all of us, her children, throughout. 

I am forever indebted to my late mother for her strictness and for her presence in all of my trials and tribulation during my formative stages of life. I didn’t like it then but it is what made me.

These experiences and views are shared by many who grew up in the 60s, 70s and 80s.

Even President Uhuru Kenyatta says he is grateful for the strict upbringing he received from his mother, Mama Ngina Kenyatta. It’s as if the mothers of those days were cut from the same cloth.


Unfortunately, many of the immigrants to towns, as well as the so-called “born-towns,” have lost the African norms of parenting. The consequences are what we see today in schools from their millennial children.

As Frederick Douglass, an American social reformer once said, “Without a struggle, there can be no progress.” 

In virtually every story of success that I have heard of, success came as a result of struggle or hard work. Much of what comes on a silver platter dissipates. 

It comes as a surprise therefore, when parents who have struggled and succeeded say that they do not want their children to suffer as they did.  Yet it is said that strength grows out of struggle and your successes are based on how well you overcome your struggles in life.

Some parents splash cash on digital devices for their children, not knowing that they are preparing their children to become digital addicts.

A US television channel ABC, in its 20/20 program, followed families in what they described as the “depths of their struggle,” exploring the “destructive dependence, extreme change of personality, isolation, and physical signs during withdrawal” victims can experience.” 


The special program “examines the cases of a 15-year-old girl who went to rehab after a dangerous online relationship; a 14-year-old gamer whose obsession prevented him from attending school.”

The young girl would spend hours on the screens sexting. Experts say that after sometime, such people become psychopaths. 

So when you hear youths saying school is like prison, you can guess what they are doing behind the screens at home. Without gadgets, they become literally paranoid and schizophrenic. 

Without casting any aspersions on what happened at Moi Girls School Nairobi, I can hazard a guess and make a general statement that youth who are digitally addicted will have a problem in confined spaces like schools, and may act irrationally.

A study, “Attention deficit hyperactivity symptoms and Internet addiction conducted by Hee Jeong Yoo, and his colleagues in South Korea, evaluated the relationship between attention deficit-hyperactivity/impulsivity symptoms and internet addiction on 752 11-year olds.

Their findings show that those who had ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) had a higher internet addiction score.

They concluded that there was a significant association between ADHD and internet addiction, thereby suggesting that the presence of ADHD symptoms, both inattention and hyperactivity-impulsivity domains, may be one of the important risk factors for internet addiction.


Several other studies have come to these conclusions, that unabated use of internet among children and adolescence, may lead to harmful behaviour. Use of digital devices is inevitable but what is more important is detecting addiction much earlier and dealing with it. 

Experts have identified several symptoms of digital addiction. These include feeling unable to separate from your connected device (laptop, smartphone) or connectivity; lying about the time spent online (which often manifests in fatigue for those who stay online throughout the night with other suffering from lack of sleep); spending more time online than with human beings and failing to respect your own boundaries as to how much time you allocate for online activities and other chores in life. 

Increasingly, these symptoms are the sources of conflict between adolescences and parents.

Most people can attest to hearing a parent threaten to throw away their children’s mobile phone or computer.

In my view, if addiction is not detected at home and is also denied at school, it leads to the serious outcomes we are now witnessing in our high schools. 


In some cases you no longer have students but mental cases that ought not to be with the normal student population.  This is why they call the schools they are attending “prisons.”

Schools are so baptised because these children don’t have the freedom to spend more time with their devices, yet these are the same schools hundreds of thousands went through to be where they are today.

I am well aware that student protest and violence in high schools has been with us since 1908, when Maseno School students protested against manual labour. 

Past high school protests were never as violent until early in the 1990s when boys at the St. Kizito Mixed High School invaded the girls’ dorms and raped 70 girls leaving 19 dead. Then Nyeri High School students locked four of their prefects in a room and burnt them with petrol. 

The violence escalated into the late 1990s with the burning of 57 girls at Bombolulu Girl Secondary School by fellow students and the Kyanguli Secondary School dormitory fire that led to the demise of 65 innocent people. 


During this period, there were not less than 200 articles in newspapers about increased use of drugs in schools, meaning that another form of addiction may have been the source of violence. 

Much of the violence in the first decade of the 21st century could be linked to the pressure of examinations. In the second decade, however, the pattern of violence is linked to some form of addiction.

Although the Ministry of Education has always created some commission or other to investigate the causes, there has never been a comprehensive response to curb this violent behaviour. Often, these commissions lack the necessary tools and methods of investigation. 

We must stop the knee-jerk reaction of appointing commissions and seek to comprehensively deal with high school violence in Kenya. There has to be a lengthy ethnographic study to establish the role of parenting and violence in schools. 

This does not have to be a commission. Funding a few anthropology, psychology, sociology, or communication PhD students to study this problem with appropriate methodologies will do.


Parents are the foundation of character but by and large, today’s parents are selfish. They work late into the night, spend weekends playing golf somewhere and the few moments they are with their children, they get to keep them busy with their smartphones. 

In other countries, when they have a busy life, they don’t bother to bring someone into the world only to park them with electronic devices.  Instead they take a break to bond and shape the young one until they are on their own. Our attempt to do both is failing with catastrophic consequences. 

Solving some of these addiction problems goes back to parents who can set boundaries and spend more time with their children so that they spend less time online or in entertainment joints.  Keep adolescents busy at all times to minimise the time they can dedicate to addictive practices.  

Once again, I quote from Frederick Douglass’ writing, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”   

The writer is an associate professor at University of Nairobi’s School of Business. Twitter: @bantigito