The promise and peril of mobile phones for youth in rural Uganda: Multimethod study of implications for health and HIV

Philip Kreniske, Alyssa Basmajian, Neema Nakyanjo, William Ddaaki, Dauda Isabirye, Charles Ssekyewa, Rosette Nakubulwa, Jennifer S. Hirsch, Andrea Deisher, Fred Nalugoda, Larry W. Chang, John S. Santelli

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Background: In East Africa, where landlines are used by 1% of the population and access to the internet is limited, owning a cell phone is rapidly becoming essential for acquiring information and resources. Our analysis illuminates the perils and potential promise of mobile phones with implications for future interventions to promote the health of adolescents and young adults (AYAs) and to prevent HIV infection. Objective: The aim of this study is to describe the current state of AYAs’ phone use in the region and trace out the implications for mobile health interventions. Methods: We identified 2 trading centers that were representative of southern Uganda in terms of key demographics, proportion of cell phone ownership, and community HIV prevalence. We stratified the sample of potential informants by age group (15-19 years and 20-24 years), gender, and phone ownership and randomly sampled 31 key informant interview participants within these categories. In addition, we conducted 24 ethnographic participant observations among AYAs in the communities of study. Results: AYA frequently reported barriers to using their phones, such as difficulty accessing electricity. Nearly all AYAs used mobile phones to participate in the local economy and communicate with sexual partners. Phone use was frequently a point of contention between sexual partners, with many AYAs reporting that their sexual partners associated phone use with infidelity. Few AYAs reported using their phones for health-related purposes, with most getting health information in person from health workers. However, most AYAs reported an instance when they used their phone in an emergency, with childbirth-related emergencies being the most common. Finally, most AYAs reported that they would like to use their phones for health purposes and specifically stated that they would like to use their mobile phones to access current HIV prevention information. Conclusions: This study demonstrates how mobile phones are related to income-generating practices in the region and communication with sexual partners but not access to health and HIV information. Our analysis offers some explanation for our previous study, which suggested an association between mobile phone ownership, having multiple sexual partners, and HIV risk. Mobile phones have untapped potential to serve as tools for health promotion and HIV prevention.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere17837
JournalJournal of medical Internet research
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 2021


  • Adolescence
  • Cell phones
  • East Africa
  • HIV
  • Mobile phones
  • Mobility
  • Youth

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Health Informatics


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