Publics see mobile phones and social media bringing certain benefits to them and their societies. But these views are paired with widespread concerns about their impact on children.
After more than a decade of studying the spread and impact of digital life in the United States, Pew Research Center has intensified its exploration of the impact of online connectivity among populations in emerging economies – where the prospect of swift and encompassing cultural change propelled by digital devices might be even more dramaticthan the effects felt in developed societies.
Surveys conducted in 11 emerging and developing countries across four global regions find that the vast majority of adults in these countries own – or have access to – a mobile phone of some kind.1 And these mobile phones are not simply basic devices with little more than voice and texting capacity: A median of 53% across these nations now have access to a smartphone capable of accessing the internet and running apps.
The 11 countries in this report and why they were included
In concert with this development, social media platforms and messaging apps – most notably, Facebook and WhatsApp – are widely used. Across the surveyed countries, a median of 64% use at least one of seven different social media sites or messaging apps.2Indeed, smartphones and social media have melded so thoroughly that for many they go hand-in-hand. A median of 91% of smartphone users in these countries also use social media, while a median of 81% of social media users say they own or share a smartphone.
What is a median?
People in these nations say mobile phones have helped them personally in various ways. Among mobile phone users, an 11-country median of 93% say these devices have helped them stay in touch with people who live far away, and a somewhat smaller share (a median of 79%) say they have helped them obtain news and information about important issues. More broadly, majorities of adults in all 11 countries say the internet has had a good impact on education – and majorities in 10 of 11 countries say the same of mobile phones.
Facebook has brought a lot of advantages for our society. However, it has also affected society in a negative way. Just like anything which can be used for both good and bad, social media have brought negatives and positives for people.MAN, 22, PHILIPPINES
At the same time, smaller shares of adults in these nations say mobile phones and social media have been good for society than say these technologies have been good for them personally. And the challenges that digital life can pose for children are a particularly notable source of concern. Some 79% of adults in these countries say people should be very concerned about children being exposed to harmful or immoral content when using mobile phones, and a median of 63% say mobile phones have had a bad influence on children in their country. They also express mixed opinions about the impact of increased connectivity on physical health and morality.
Some of these tensions between the upsides and downsides of digital life span all 11 countries surveyed. At other times, there are nation-specific elements to people’s views about what these technologies have brought to their lives. For instance, more than half of mobile phone users in five of these countries describe their phone as something they couldn’t live without – but users in six countries are more likely to describe it as something they don’t always need.
These are among the major findings from a new Pew Research Center survey conducted among 28,122 adults in 11 countries from Sept. 7 to Dec. 7, 2018. In addition to the survey, the Center conducted focus groups with diverse groups of participants in Kenya, Mexico, the Philippines and Tunisia in March 2018, and their comments are included throughout the report.
How the focus groups were conducted
Majorities say mobile phones and social media have mostly been good for them personally, somewhat less so for society
Asked for their overall assessment of the impact of mobile devices and social media platforms on society and their own lives, people in these nations generally are more affirming than not. But within this broadly positive consensus, there are important nuances.
First, at both a personal and societal level publics are generally more likely to say mobile phones have had a mostly good impact than to say the same of social media. A median of 70% of adults across these 11 countries say mobile phones have been a mostly good thing for society, but that share falls to 57% on the question of the impact of social media. Indeed, a median of 27% think social media have been a mostly bad thing for society.
Second, these publics are more likely to say that both mobile phones and social media have been mostly good for them personally than they are to say they have been mostly good for society. As noted above, an 11-country median of 70% say that mobile phones have been mostly good for society. But an even larger share of 82% say mobile phones have been mostly good for them personally. When it comes to social media, users of these sites are generally more likely to proclaim their benefits than non-users. Even among users, people’s views of their personal impact tend to be more positive than their views of their societal impact.
These broad themes tend to occur across the full scope of the countries surveyed. But Kenyans and Vietnamese stand out somewhat for their more positive views of the societal impact of both mobile phones and social media. Conversely, relatively large shares of Venezuelans view the societal impact of these technologies as a negative one.
Many worry that mobile phones are a problem for children; it is common for parents to attempt to curtail and surveil their child’s screen time
While on balance people in these nations express largely positive judgments about the personal and societal impact of technologies, they also express significant concerns over the effects mobile phones and online connectivity might have on young people. Worries that mobile phones might expose children to immoral or harmful content are a key flashpoint in these fears. A median of 79% of adults in these 11 countries – and majorities in all countries surveyed – say people should be very concerned about this. More broadly, a median of 54% say the increasing use of the internet has had a bad influence on children in their country, and a median of 63% say the same about mobile phones.
Coupled with these concerns, many parents say they try to be vigilant about what their children are doing and seeing on their phones.3 Among parents whose children have mobile phones, a median of 50% say they monitor what their children do on their mobile devices. Parents who are themselves smartphone or social media users are more likely than non-users to monitor their child’s phone in this way. Along with monitoring their children’s activities on their mobile devices, a median of 52% of parents whose children have mobile phones have tried to limit the time their children spend with their phones.
Beyond these concerns about the influence of connectivity on children, people’s views of the broader impact of digital technologies on family life are more positive. For instance, the vast majority of mobile phone users (a median of 93% across the 11 countries) say their phone has helped them stay in touch with people who live far away. And although majorities of Lebanese (70%) and Jordanians (62%) feel that mobile phones have had a bad influence on family cohesion, in most other countries surveyed, more say mobile phones have had a good influence in this regard than a bad one.
Publics are divided over the role mobile phones play in their lives
Overall, mobile phone users tend to associate their mobile phones with feelings of freedom. In every country surveyed, a larger share of mobile phone users describe their phone as something that frees them as opposed to something that ties them down.
When it comes to whether their phones help them save time or make them waste time, the largest share of mobile phone users in seven countries describe their phone as something that helps them save time. Still, larger shares of Jordanians and Filipinos describe their phone as something that makes them waste time. And in Lebanon and Mexico, roughly equal shares see their phone as a time saver and time waster.
Across the 11 countries surveyed, mobile phone users fall into two camps about whether their phone is something they don’t always need or something they couldn’t live without. Kenyans, South Africans, Jordanians, Tunisians and Lebanese who use a mobile phone are more likely to say their phone is something they couldn’t live without. But in the six other countries, larger shares say they don’t always need their phone.
Both phone type and demographic differences are at the core of these assessments about the value of mobile phones in users’ lives. For instance, adults ages 50 and older are more likely than those under 30 to view their phone as a time saver, while younger adults are more likely to view it as a time waster – a relationship that persists in most countries even when accounting for age-related differences in smartphone use. And although mobile phone users tend to see their phone as something that frees them, the prevalence of these attitudes varies by device type. For instance, in most countries, smartphone users are more likely than basic or feature phone users to say their phone is something that ties them down rather than something that frees them.
Have you ever gone one day without a phone? You feel like you’re not in this world.MAN, 32, KENYA
Publics in these countries say mobile phones have a beneficial impact on certain aspects of society, but a more negative influence on others
People’s assessments of the specific societal impacts of mobile phones vary depending on the aspect of society in question. Broadly, people in most countries think mobile phones and the internet have had similar impacts on society – possibly because for many their online access comes through a mobile phone.
In most countries, education stands out as the issue where the largest share of adults say the increasing use of the internet and mobile phones has had a good impact. A median of 67% say this about the impact of mobile phones, and a median of 71% about the internet. Public attitudes regarding the influence of the internet on education have grown more positive since 2014 in six of the countries studied here (Jordan, South Africa, Kenya, Vietnam, Lebanon and Mexico), while falling in Tunisia.
Adults in the 11 nations surveyed also view these technologies as having a largely good influence on the economy: A median of 58% say this of mobile phones and 56% say same about the internet. And in seven of the 10 countries for which trends are available, more people today say the increasing use of the internet has had a good influence on their country’s economy than said the same in 2014.4
But digital connectivity is seen in a less positive light when it comes to other issues. In addition to their widespread worries about the impact on children, publics in these countries also express mixed views about increased connectivity’s impact on health. An 11-country median of 40% say mobile phones have had a bad influence on physical health, and 37% say the same of the internet. Majorities of the public in Jordan, Lebanon and Tunisia view these technologies as having a negative influence on health.
Children usually play with gadgets the most and are exposed to radiation and experiencing seizures – that’s what I heard.MAN, 43, PHILIPPINES
Also, instead of playing outside, they are busy with gadgets. […] They are no longer able to socialize with other kids.WOMAN, 21, PHILIPPINES
In addition, a median of 35% say that both mobile phones and the internet have had a bad influence on morality. In four countries for which trend data are available (Kenya, Venezuela, Mexico and Colombia), larger shares of the public say the internet has had a good influence on morality than was true four years ago. But in Jordan and Lebanon, the shares saying this have declined since 2014.
When people consider issues such as the impact of digital tools on local culture, civility, family cohesion and politics, the overall balance of public sentiment leans positive. But notable minorities – ranging from a median of 20% in the case of family cohesion to a median of 29% in the case of politics – say mobile phones have had a negative impact on these facets of society.
Moreover, public opinion across these 11 countries has diverged in recent years when it comes to the internet’s impact on politics. Compared with surveys conducted in 2014, larger shares of Mexicans, South Africans, Venezuelans, Kenyans and Colombians now say increasing use of the internet has had a positive impact on politics. But Tunisians, Lebanese and Jordanians are now less likely to say this compared with 2014.
Despite wide-ranging worries about the problems mobile phones invite, personal benefits are still widely recognized
In addition to their concerns about the impact of mobile phones on children, majorities across the 11 countries surveyed also say people should also be very worried about issues such as identity theft (an 11-country median of 66% say people should be very concerned about this), exposure to false information (64%), mobile phone addiction (62%) and harassment or bullying (59%) when using their mobile phones. Fewer are very concerned about the risk that people might lose the ability to communicate face-to-face due to mobile phone use (48%).
Yet these broader concerns often coexist with perceived benefits to users. For instance, despite widespread concerns that mobile phones might expose people to false or inaccurate information, a sizable majority of mobile phone users (79%) say their own phone has helped their ability to get news and information about important issues. Similarly, a median of 58% of mobile phone users say their devices have helped their ability to communicate face-to-face – even as a median of 48% of adults in these countries say people should be very worried about mobile phones’ effects on face-to-face communication.
Other key findings relating to the adoption and use of digital technology in these countries include:
- Majorities in each country own their mobile phone, and sharing a phone with someone else is relatively rare. A median of just 7% of adults in these countries share a mobile phone, ranging from a low of 1% of adults in Vietnam to a high of 17% in Venezuela.
- Smartphone use is higher among younger adults and those with higher education levels.5 Lebanon and Jordan are the only countries in the survey in which a majority of adults ages 50 and older – as well as a majority of those with less than a secondary education – are smartphone users.
- Home computer and tablet access is relatively rare in these countries: A median of 34% have access to either kind of device. And a median of 27% of adults in these countries say they do not have a tablet or computer at home but do have a smartphone, ranging from a low of 18% in Venezuela to a high of 50% in Jordan.
- By a substantial margin, Facebook (used by a median of 62% of adults in these countries) and WhatsApp (used by a median of 47%) are the two most commonly used social media or messaging platforms out of the seven included in the survey. To the extent that adults use only one of these platforms, in every country that platform is either Facebook or WhatsApp.
- Some social media platforms or messaging apps are more popular in some countries than in others. For example, about one-third of Lebanese adults (34%) use the photo-sharing site Instagram. The messaging app Viber is more popular in Lebanon and Tunisia – where about one-in-five adults report using it – than elsewhere, while Jordanians stand out for their use of the photo-messaging app Snapchat (24%).
Use of smartphones and social media is common across most emerging economies
Large majorities in the 11 emerging and developing countries surveyed either own or share a mobile phone, and in every country it is much more common to own one’s own phone than to share it with someone else. In seven of these countries, half or more now use smartphones – and smartphone use is especially common among younger and more educated groups.
Meanwhile, access to tablets or computers is rarer. In only one country – Lebanon – does a majority (57%) have access to a working desktop, laptop or tablet computer in their household, and mobile devices play a prominent role in how people access the internet and their social networks in many of these nations.6
Most adults say they own a mobile phone; relatively few share one
Majorities of adults in each of the 11 emerging and developing countries surveyed report owning their own mobile phone. Ownership levels are highest in Vietnam, where nearly all adults (97%) own a mobile device, although about nine-in-ten or more also own one in Jordan, Tunisia, Colombia, Kenya, Lebanon and South Africa. Ownership is lowest in Venezuela, India and the Philippines, but even in these countries about seven-in-ten adults own a mobile device.
Meanwhile, an 11-country median of 11% say they do not own a mobile phone, which includes a median of 7% who say they regularly use someone else’s phone.7 But overall, phone sharing is relatively rare in most countries – ranging from just 1% in Vietnam to a high of 17% in Venezuela. (Throughout this report, phone owners and phone sharers will be grouped together and referred to as “mobile phone users.”)
Sharing tends to be more common among adults with lower levels of education.8 And in India – where women are less likely than men to own their own mobile phones – significantly more women (20%) than men (5%) report sharing a device with someone else.
Mobile phone ownership varies by age, gender and education
Across these 11 countries, mobile phone ownership (as distinct from phone sharing) tends to vary by several demographic traits, including educational attainment, gender and age.
In all countries surveyed, adults with a secondary education or higher are more likely to own their own mobile phone than are those with less than a secondary education. These educational gaps in ownership range from just 3 percentage points in Vietnam to 35 points in the Philippines.
Majorities of both men and women own mobile phones in all of the countries surveyed. But ownership rates among women vary significantly across the countries, from a low of 56% in India to a high of 96% in Vietnam. Outside of India – where men are 28 percentage points more likely than women to own a mobile phone – gender gaps in ownership in other countries are either relatively modest (such as the 8-point differences in Kenya and Lebanon) or nonexistent, as in the case of Vietnam and the Philippines.
Most of those ages 18 to 29 report owning their own mobile phone in almost all countries surveyed. However, a slightly smaller share of younger Venezuelans – but still a majority at 65% – say they own a mobile phone. A majority of those 50 and older also report owning a mobile phone in most of the 11 countries surveyed. Only in the Philippines do fewer than half of the oldest age group own a phone (46%). Overall, younger people are more likely than older adults to own a phone in the Philippines (41 percentage points), Lebanon (27 points), India (25 points) and Mexico (24 points).
For more on how phone ownership and use varies by age, gender or education levels, see Appendix C.
Phone users cite multiple reasons for sharing, rather than owning, a mobile device
Across the countries surveyed, the 7% median of those who share, rather than own, a mobile phone cite a number of reasons for why they share their phones. About four-in-ten phone sharers in Kenya (42%), Venezuela (40%) and Tunisia (38%) say they share a phone primarily because they cannot afford their own device. Another half of Venezuelan sharers say they now share a phone because their own phone was lost, broken or stolen, as do about four-in-ten Colombians (41%) and Kenyans (41%). Not needing to use a mobile phone regularly is a commonly cited reason for sharing a phone in India (39%) and the Philippines (29%).
In India, a sizable portion of phone sharers also name another reason for sharing rather than owning their own device: They think phones are too complicated to use (26%).
Smartphones are generally the most common type of mobile device
Smartphones, or phones that can connect to the internet and run apps, are the most prevalent type of mobile device in nine of the 11 countries surveyed: A majority of adults (median of 53%) report using a smartphone. Usage is highest in Lebanon (86%) and Jordan (85%), and lowest in India (32%).
How this survey defines different types of mobile phone users
Basic and feature phones are less popular overall, but some countries stand out for their high usage of these less digitally connected phones. In India nearly half of adults (47%) say they use a basic mobile phone that cannot connect to the internet. Sizable shares in Kenya (40%), Tunisia (37%) and Venezuela (36%) also report using a basic phone.
Feature phones are generally the least common devices in the countries surveyed, with few adults (median of 4%) saying they own or share a device that can connect to the internet but is not a smartphone. But feature phones – which offer some of the same features as smartphones, but typically cannot support apps – are popular in Mexico, where one-third of adults say they use this type of device. About one-in-five Kenyans (21%) and Colombians (17%) also use feature phones.
Smartphone use is far more common among younger and more educated adults
Younger adults lead the way in smartphone use in each of the countries surveyed. Across all 11 countries, those under 30 are much more likely to use a smartphone than those ages 50 and older. However, usage rates among 18- to 29-year-olds differ substantially by country, from nine-in-ten or more in Lebanon, Jordan and Vietnam to fewer than half of Kenyans under 30 (46%).
Lebanon and Jordan – where smartphones are widespread – stand out for being the only countries where a majority of adults ages 50 and older also report using smartphones. Still, older Lebanese and Jordanian adults are far less likely than their younger counterparts to use a smartphone.
People with higher levels of education are also more likely to use smartphones. In each country surveyed, a majority of those with a secondary education or more use smartphones. The education gap is most pronounced in India, where more educated people are 41 points more likely to use a smartphone.
In six of these countries, men are somewhat more likely than women to use smartphones. This gap is largest in India, where 40% of men use smartphones compared with 23% of women.
While smartphone users are generally younger and more educated, the opposite is true of basic phone users: People who use these more technically limited devices tend to be older and have lower levels of education.
Feature phone use doesn’t consistently vary by age or education. However, in Mexico – where one-third of the population uses a feature phone – women (38%) are more likely than men (27%) to report using this type of device.
Facebook and WhatsApp are the most widely used social platforms
Among the seven online social media platforms and messaging apps asked about on this survey, a median of 62% use Facebook. Facebook is most popular in Jordan and Lebanon, where about seven-in-ten adults say they currently use it. Although India has the smallest percentage of Facebook users (24%) of the countries surveyed, the country also has the largest net number of active Facebook users in the world.
The seven social media platforms and messaging apps in this report and why they were included
The messaging application WhatsApp, which was purchased by Facebook in 2014, is also one of the most widely used digital platforms, with a median of 47% saying they use it. As with Facebook, WhatsApp is most popular in Jordan and Lebanon, where about eight-in-ten or more say they currently use it. The messaging app is least popular in the Philippines and Vietnam, where very few adults use it – 4% and 2%, respectively.
Use of the other platforms included in the survey is less widespread. A median of 20% say they use the photo-sharing application Instagram – which is also owned by Facebook – while 10% or fewer report using Twitter or the messaging and photo-sharing app Snapchat. Just 4% of adults in these countries say they use the Viber messaging app, and no more than 3% in any country use the dating app Tinder.
But some platforms are more popular in particular countries. For example, about one-third of Lebanese adults (34%) say they currently use Instagram. The messaging app Viber is most popular in Lebanon and Tunisia, where about one-in-five adults report using it. And Jordanians stand out for their use of the photo-messaging app Snapchat (24%).
Compare the rates of social media platform and messaging app usage in 11 countries around the world
% of adults who say they currently use …
In most countries, each of these social media and messaging services are more likely to be used by younger adults. For example, while 91% of Vietnamese 18- to 29-year-olds say they currently use Facebook, 23% of the country’s 50-and-older population uses the site. In most of the other countries surveyed, there are also large age gaps in WhatsApp usage.
Educational gaps in usage are also significant for most of these services, with people who have a secondary education or higher being more likely to use them. In Vietnam, for example, a large majority of more educated adults (85%) use Facebook, compared with 52% of those with less than a secondary education.
Majorities of adults in most countries use at least one social media platform or messaging application, but relatively few use three or more
In most of the 11 countries analyzed, a majority of adults report using at least one of the seven social media platforms or messaging apps included in this survey. This type of online activity is especially common in Lebanon, Jordan, Colombia and Mexico, where about three-quarters or more use at least one of these services.
Kenya and India are the only countries where a majority of adults do not use at least one of these social media or messaging services.
Although it is common to use at least one of these platforms, relatively few adults (median of 20%) say they currently use three or more social media platforms or messaging apps. This level of use is most common in Lebanon and Jordan, where about four-in-ten say they use three or more of these apps (42% and 38%, respectively). About three-in-ten say the same in Venezuela (31%), Colombia (29%) and Mexico (27%). People in India (9%), the Philippines (9%) and Vietnam (5%) are the least likely to report using three or more of these apps.
Among people who use just one social media platform or messaging app, Facebook and WhatsApp are most common
For adults who only use one of the social media platforms or messaging apps included in this survey, two services dominate: Facebook and WhatsApp. Single-platform users rarely report using any of the other five services included in the survey.
The dominant platform among this group of people who only use one service varies by country: Facebook is most common among single-site users in the Philippines, Vietnam, Tunisia, Venezuela and Kenya. Meanwhile, WhatsApp is most common among such users in Mexico, Colombia, Jordan, South Africa, India and Lebanon.
Kenya is the only country where a sizable share (14%) of these single-site users are using something other than Facebook or WhatsApp – in this case, mostly Snapchat (8%).
Internet use is common across most of the nations surveyed
This survey defines an “internet user” as anyone who says they use the internet, who uses at least one social media platform or messaging application, or who owns or shares a feature phone or smartphone. Majorities of adults in every country surveyed except India are internet users.
Internet use is most widespread in Jordan and Lebanon, where 87% of adults in each country go online. About eight-in-ten adults also go online in the Latin American countries of Mexico (81%), Colombia (80%) and Venezuela (77%).
India has the smallest share of internet users of the countries surveyed: Just 38% of Indians use the internet. However, a majority of Indians ages 18 to 29 (55%) go online, as do a majority of Indians with a secondary degree or more (67%).
How this survey defines ‘internet users’
In eight of these countries, gender differences in internet use are either nonexistent (in the case of Colombia, the Philippines, Venezuela and Vietnam) or modest (in the case of Jordan, Lebanon, Mexico and South Africa). These differences are most prominent in India, Kenya and Tunisia, although majorities of both men and women in Tunisia and Kenya go online. In India, 46% of men and just 29% of women use the internet. To some extent, these gender gaps in internet use coincide with differences in smartphone use, as men in both countries are more likely to use smartphones than women.
For more on how use of the internet and of specific social media platforms and messaging apps vary by age, gender or education, see Appendix C.
Home computer or tablet access is relatively rare in most countries
In most of the countries surveyed, relatively few people (median of 34%) have access to a desktop computer, laptop or tablet in their household. The exception is Lebanon, where a majority of adults (57%) say they have access to such a device. As with most other measures of technological connectedness, those who are younger and more educated are generally more likely to have access to a computer or tablet at home.
Anywhere from 28% (in India) to 52% (in Jordan) of adults in these countries use the internet in some fashion but do not have a computer or tablet at home. And a median of 27% of adults in these countries say they do not have a tablet or computer at home but do have a smartphone, ranging from a low of 18% in Venezuela to a high of 50% in Jordan.
Majorities say mobile phones are good for society, even amid concerns about their impact on children
Across the 11 countries surveyed, people’s attitudes toward mobile phones tend to be largely positive. In most of the countries, a large majority say mobile phones have been good for them personally, and many also say mobile phones positively impact education and the economy. Mobile phone users also overwhelmingly agree that their phones help them to stay in touch with faraway friends and family and keep them informed of the latest news and information.
At the same time, people’s positive attitudes are paired with concerns about the impact of mobile phones on certain aspects of society – and especially their impact on children. In eight of these countries, a majority of the public says that the increasing use of mobile phones has had a bad impact on children today. And when asked about the potential risks of mobile phone use, majorities in every country say people should be very concerned that mobile phones might expose children to harmful or inappropriate content.
I think mobile phones have made the world like a global village.MAN, 24, KENYA
In nine of the 11 countries surveyed, large majorities say mobile phones have been mostly good for them personally. In Venezuela, people are more skeptical of the role mobile phones are playing in their lives. There, 49% say mobile phones have been mostly good for them personally, while 47% say they have been mostly bad. Elsewhere, no more than 11% in any country say mobile phones have been mostly a bad thing for them.
In nine of these 11 countries, majorities also say mobile phones have had a positive impact on society. But in most countries, people report less enthusiasm about the societal impact of mobile devices than about their personal impact. For example, while 82% of Jordanians say mobile phones have mostly been good for them personally, just 53% express positive views about their societal impact. And in Colombia, Tunisia and Mexico, there is at least a 10-percentage-point difference between shares who see the personal benefits of mobile phones and those who see the society-wide benefits.
Regardless of the type of mobile phone people use – basic, feature or smart – most have similar views about how their lives and societies have been impacted by their devices.9Across all surveyed countries, basic or feature phone users are just as likely as smartphone users in their country to say mobile phones have mostly been a positive thing for them personally. And in all countries but Mexico, similar shares of smartphone users and those with less advanced devices say the societal impact of mobile phones has mostly been good. In Mexico, where smartphone use is relatively low compared with other countries, smartphone users are somewhat more likely than basic or feature phone users to say the impact on society has been mostly positive (77% vs. 69%).
But there are some differences between mobile phone users and those who do not use a mobile phone at all. In five of these 11 countries (India, Kenya, Lebanon, Mexico and South Africa), mobile users of any kind are more likely than non-users to say that mobile devices have had a mostly positive impact on society.
Mobile phone users have mixed views about upsides and downsides of their phones, are especially divided over whether they ‘couldn’t live without’ phones
In every country surveyed, mobile phone users are more likely to say their phone is something that frees them rather than something that ties them down. At least 63% in five countries (Kenya, Vietnam, Venezuela, South Africa and the Philippines) characterize their phone as something that frees them, whereas users in other countries are somewhat more ambivalent. For example, while 46% of Jordanian mobile phone users say their phone frees them, 25% say it ties them down, and 21% volunteer that neither statement holds true. In Lebanon, 40% of mobile phone users say their phone frees them, compared with 30% who say it ties them down.
“It’s like the mobile phones become your partner.WOMAN, 40, PHILIPPINES
Across the 11 countries surveyed, mobile phone users are somewhat more divided when it comes to whether their phone helps save them time or makes them waste time. In seven countries, larger shares say their phone helps save them time. Kenyans are especially likely to see their phone as a time saver; 84% of mobile phone users say their phone saves them time, compared with 14% who say it wastes their time. Venezuelan (71%), South African (65%), Indian (64%), Vietnamese (63%), Tunisian (54%) and Colombian (50%) phone users are also more likely to say that phones save them time rather than waste it. But mobile phone users in Jordan and the Philippines generally believe they waste more time on their phones than they save, while Mexican and Lebanese phone users are roughly evenly divided in their assessments.
Mobile phone users are even more divided when assessing their reliance or lack thereof on their mobile device. In six countries – Mexico, Colombia, India, the Philippines, Venezuela and Vietnam – around half or more see their phone as something they don’t always need. But in five others – Jordan, Lebanon, South Africa, Tunisia and Kenya – users are more inclined to say they couldn’t live without it.
In some instances, people’s perceptions of the necessity of their mobile device is not linked to their assessments of its utility in other aspects of their life. For instance, a majority of Venezuelans say their phone is something that frees them and helps them save time – but just 29% say they couldn’t live without it. Conversely, a majority of Jordanians say they couldn’t live without their phone – even as they are more likely to describe it as a time waster rather than a time saver.
Consistently, smartphone users tend to be somewhat more critical of their device than basic or feature phone users in their country. For example, in every country smartphone users are more likely than basic or feature phone users to say their phone makes them waste time. And in all countries except Lebanon, smartphone users are more likely to say their phone ties them down rather than frees them.
There are also prominent and consistent differences by age. In every country surveyed, mobile phone users ages 50 and older are significantly more likely than users ages 18 to 29 to believe their phone helps them save time. The age gap is particularly notable in Vietnam, Tunisia and Colombia, where the shares of older adults who see their phone as a time saver surpass those of younger adults by at least 27 percentage points. And, while it is true that younger adults use smartphones and social media at higher rates than older adults, in every country but India these age differences persist even when accounting for age-related differences in usage.
Users largely agree mobile phones help them maintain long-distance communication, stay informed about important issues
When asked about a variety of ways in which mobile phones might affect their day-to-day lives, users across the surveyed countries generally agree that mobile phones have mostly helped them keep in touch with people who live far away and obtain information about important issues. But there is less consensus when it comes to mobile phones’ impact on people’s ability to earn a living, concentrate and get things done, or communicate face-to-face.
In general terms, communication is much more efficient. You are more interconnected, [whether] with your relatives or with world affairs.MAN, 26, MEXICO
Large majorities say their phones have mostly helped them stay in touch with people who live far away. A median of 93% across the 11 countries surveyed express this view, whereas a median of just 1% say mobile phones have hurt their ability to stay in touch. Majorities also say their mobile phones have helped them obtain information and news about important issues, ranging from a low of 73% in Vietnam to a high of 88% in Kenya. And only small shares (from 1% to 6% of users) indicate that phones have hurt their ability to do this.
In all 11 countries, smartphone users are significantly more likely than basic or feature phone users to say their phone has helped them obtain news and information. The difference is particularly prominent in Lebanon, where 83% of smartphone users say the impact has been positive, compared with 26% of non-smartphone users. And in Jordan, smartphone users are much more likely than non-smartphone users to say their phone has mostly helped them obtain information (83% vs. 44%).
Less consensus over whether mobile phones help users earn a living, concentrate or communicate face-to-face
Across the 11 countries surveyed, there is less agreement about whether mobile phones have helped people earn a living. Majorities of users in nine countries say their phone has had a positive impact on their livelihood – ranging from 55% in Tunisia to 81% in Kenya – while Jordanians and Lebanese most commonly say that mobile phones have not had much impact either way on their ability to make a living. Still, few people see mobile phones having a negative effect. Even in Jordan and Lebanon, nearly four-in-ten say the impact has been favorable.
There is less consensus among mobile phone users that their devices have helped them to concentrate and get things done. Majorities in eight out of 11 countries say mobile phones have mostly helped them concentrate and get things done. But notable shares in the Philippines (30%), Lebanon (18%) and India (16%) say mobile phones negatively affect their concentration.
In some instances, these attitudes are related to the type of device users carry – although this relationship varies by country. Smartphone users in five out of 11 countries – Lebanon, India, Jordan, Colombia and Venezuela – are more likely than other phone users to say their phone helps them concentrate and get things done, while there are no differences based on smartphone usage in the other six countries surveyed. This pattern is particularly salient in Lebanon, Jordan and India, where smartphone users and non-smartphone users differ by at least 10 percentage points.
These findings echo the concerns raised by some focus group participants (see Appendix Afor more information on how the groups were conducted). Some respondents noted how mobile phones bring distractions and shorten their attention spans, leading people to commit basic errors or not complete work because of the attention paid to their devices. In every group held in the Philippines, for example, at least one participant brought up that she had burned the rice she was making because of her focus on her phone.
Because I was busy texting my client, my rice got overcooked.WOMAN, 40, PHILIPPINES
Lastly, majorities of users in eight countries say their mobile phones have helped their ability to communicate face-to-face – but notable shares in many countries say that impact has been mostly negative. In particular, 35% of Lebanese phone users say mobile phones have hurt their ability to communicate face-to-face.
In focus groups, some lamented that more and more people prefer virtual communication enabled by mobile phones and other technologies to face-to-face interaction. A few participants across the four countries where focus groups were conducted also pointed out similar trends among children and young people.
People meet less because of their phones; people use telephones to express themselves to avoid face-to-face discussions.MAN, 23, TUNISIA
Because these questions center on people’s personal relationship with their device, they were only asked of those who own or regularly share a mobile phone. For those who reported not using a phone at all, a different set of questions were posed: How do mobile phones, in general, shape people’s ability to stay in touch with those far away, to obtain information, and so on? Broadly, non-users’ impressions of the impact of mobile phones tend to mirror the ways users feel about their own devices. The vast majority of non-users feel that mobile phones help people stay in touch with those who live far away, but smaller shares think they help people to concentrate and get things done or communicate face-to-face.
Majorities in most countries say mobile phone use has had a good impact on education, but fewer see positive impacts on children, health, morality
Publics in the 11 nations polled view mobile phones as having a range of positive and negative consequences when it comes to their broader impact on their country and its society. Most notably, a median of 67% – and around half or more in every country – say the increased use of mobile phones has had a good influence on education. Slightly smaller majorities say the increased use of mobile phones has had a good influence on the economy (58%) as well as on their local culture (56%).
Few in these countries say mobile phones have had a good impact on children today
My kid’s always on his phone, and every time I address him he just nods while on his phone.WOMAN, 46, MEXICO
Across all dimensions measured in the survey, publics in the 11 countries are most negative about the impact of mobile phones on children. Nowhere does a majority feel that mobile phones have had a good influence on children. And in eight countries, majorities of the population say that mobile phones have had a bad influence on children today. Residents of the three Middle East and North African (MENA) countries surveyed are especially downbeat about mobile phones in this regard: 90% of Jordanians, 86% of Lebanese and 81% of Tunisians say mobile phones have had a bad influence on children in their country.
People also focus on the negative impacts of mobile phones on physical health, morality
In addition to the impact of mobile phones on children, health and morality stand out as particular areas of concern. A median of 40% – and clear majorities in Lebanon (71%), Jordan (69%) and Tunisia (63%) – say the increasing use of mobile phones has had a bad influence on people’s physical health. Some focus group participants expressed similar sentiment by commenting that excessive screen time, phone “addiction” and lack of physical activities were potential health-related challenges.
Meanwhile, a median of 34% say mobile phones have had a positive impact on morality, similar to the share who say the impact has been negative. As was the case with children and health, Lebanese, Jordanians and Tunisians hold the most unfavorable views in this regard. Roughly a third or more in Colombia, Mexico, Kenya and South Africa also say mobile phones negatively affect people’s morality.
Phones also give us much more room to conceal things.MAN, 42, MEXICO
As noted above, publics in Lebanon, Jordan and Tunisia stand out in their overall negativity toward mobile phones on these aspects of society. But other countries are conspicuous for having relatively positive attitudes in this regard. Kenyans, in particular, offer especially upbeat assessments of mobile phones. Half or more Kenyans feel that mobile phones have had a positive impact on each of these aspects of society, with the exception of children today (just 28% of Kenyans say mobile phones have been good for children). South Africans and Filipinos are also relatively positive about most areas surveyed.
In most countries, there are no differences between smartphone users and non-users – nor between social media users and non-users – when it comes to people’s views about the impact of increasing mobile phone use on children. But on other questions there is more variation between users and non-users. For instance, in six out of 11 countries larger shares of social media users than non-users say the increasing use of mobile phones has had a good influence on their nation’s politics. This includes all three MENA countries in the survey. Conversely, in eight of these 11 countries larger shares of social media users than non-users say mobile phones have had a bad influence on family cohesion.
Concern is widespread about the risk that mobile phones might expose children to immoral or harmful content
Despite the perceived benefits of increased mobile adoption in areas such as education, publics express concern about an array of potential downsides of mobile phone use. The survey asked about six possible risks from mobile phone use, and respondents in every country are most concerned about children being exposed to immoral or harmful content. A median of 79% – including a majority in each country surveyed – feel people should be veryconcerned about this.
Meanwhile, the prospect of users losing their ability to communicate face-to-face is the item of least concern in each country. In only two countries (South Africa and Colombia) are a majority of adults very concerned about declining face-to-face communication skills as a result of mobile phone usage.
Among these 11 countries, Colombians rank in the top two most-concerned about all of these issues. Other countries that rank in the top two most-concerned on particular issues include: Mexico (identity theft and online harassment); Jordan (phone addiction and impacts on children); South Africa (exposure to false information and losing the ability to talk face-to-face); and Tunisia (phone addiction).
Beyond these country-specific differences, concerns about mobile phone use exhibit few consistent or substantial differences relating to gender, age, phone type or social media usage. Notably, concerns about children are widespread across multiple groups. In most instances, men and women, older and younger adults, and social media users and non-users express similar levels of concern about the impact of inappropriate online content on children.
Additionally, men and women in most of these countries are similarly concerned about harassment and bullying – a noteworthy contrast to the gender-related differences often seen in surveys of online harassment among Americans. For example, a 2017 Pew Research Center survey found that 70% of women in the U.S. said online harassment was a “major problem,” compared with 54% of men.
It is relatively common for mobile phone users to limit the amount of time they – as well as their children – spend on their phones
“Sometimes I try to use [my phone] less, but it only lasts for two or three days and then I come back to the daily rhythm.WOMAN, 21, TUNISIA
Amid a widespread debate over the impact of various types of screens on children and adults alike, majorities of mobile phone users in five of these 11 countries say they have ever tried to limit the time they themselves spend on their phone. This behavior is especially common in the Philippines and Mexico, but somewhat less prevalent among mobile phone owners in Jordan, Lebanon, Venezuela and Vietnam.
In all 11 countries surveyed, smartphone users are more likely than non-smartphone users to say they try to limit the time they spend on their mobile phone. These differences are especially prominent in Vietnam (where 46% of smartphone users and 24% of non-smartphone users have done this) and Colombia (66% vs. 45%). And in 10 of these countries, larger shares of mobile phone users who also use social media say they have tried to limit their phone use relative to those who do not use social media.
People’s efforts to limit screen time also extend to children. Among parents whose child has access to a mobile phone, about half or more in seven of these countries say they ever set limits on how much time their child can spend on their phone.10
As was true of limiting their own screen time, parents’ efforts to limit the time their child spends on his or her phone also differ by the type of phone they themselves own.11Smartphone-owning parents whose child also uses a mobile phone are more likely than parents with more basic phones to say they have tried to limit their child’s screen time in nine of these 11 countries. Indeed, this gap reaches double digits in nine of these 11 countries – and is as high as 22 points in Vietnam and Jordan.
Parents’ efforts to limit their child’s mobile phone use are also related to their concerns about the negative impacts of mobile phone use (such as online harassment or children being exposed to immoral content). In nearly every country surveyed, parents who say they are very concerned about at least five of the six issues tested are more likely to try to limit their child’s mobile phone use relative to those who are very concerned about two or fewer of these issues. The only exception to this trend is Jordan, where similar shares of highly concerned and less-concerned parents say they try to limit their child’s mobile phone use.
“You should be the one limiting your child. It’s up to you to make ways to be able to limit the problems that you encounter. That’s why even if my child is very interested with gadgets, he is consistently in the honor rolls … I make limitations.”WOMAN, 38, PHILIPPINES
It is common for parents to monitor their child’s mobile phone use, and notable shares monitor the phone activity of their spouse or partner
In the focus group interviews conducted as part of this study, mobile phone surveillance performed by immediate family members emerged as a common theme. Some parents mentioned that mobile phones allowed them to track the whereabouts of their children and to make sure they were not exposed to harmful content. And for people in marriages or romantic relationships, mobile phone “spying” and social media “stalking” sometimes become the source of drama, jealousy and harassment.
Among parents whose child or children use a mobile phone, a median of 50% say they ever monitor what their child is looking at or doing on the screen. But some variation exists across these countries. In Jordan, Colombia and Mexico, for example, clear majorities of parents do this, compared with 37% of parents in Vietnam and 38% in India.
Parents who use a smartphone are generally more likely to say they monitor their child’s phone usage than parents who use a basic or feature phone. This trend is seen in 10 out of the 11 countries and is especially prominent in Jordan and Vietnam, where smartphone users differ from other phone users by 30 percentage points each.
Parents’ likelihood of monitoring their child’s phone use also differs by their own social media presence. Parents who use social media and messaging apps in each country are more likely than parents who do not use social media platforms to say they monitor content on their child’s phone.
Monitoring of mobile phone activity also extends to marriages and romantic relationships
In all countries surveyed, it is less common to monitor a partner’s phone activity – although notable shares of those with a spouse or partner report doing so.12 Among those whose partner or spouse uses a mobile phone, a median of 26% say they ever monitor their partner’s phone use. In the Philippines, this behavior is somewhat more common; 38% say they monitor their partner’s phone.
In most countries surveyed, younger adults are more likely to monitor their partner’s phone than older adults in their country. This trend holds even after accounting for the fact that younger adults are generally more likely than older adults to use smartphones or social media. In 10 countries, smartphone users ages 18 to 29 are more likely to say they monitor their partner’s phone activity than smartphone users ages 50 and older.
There are also notable gender differences when it comes to monitoring the phone activity of their significant other. In five of these 11 countries (Jordan, Venezuela, Vietnam, Mexico and Tunisia), larger shares of women than men say they ever monitor what their partner does on the phone. India is the only country surveyed where men are more likely than women to say they keep an eye on their partner’s phone.
When a guy commented on my post, my husband got jealous about it.WOMAN, 27, PHILIPPINESTalking from a married point of view, I think it’s brought a lot of mistrust. If my data is on at 10 in the night and someone sends something on WhatsApp, it’s always suspect. Who’s texting at 10? My husband is often suspicious.WOMAN, 32, KENYA
3. People say the internet brings economic and educational benefits – but some are concerned about the societal impact of social media
Whereas the previous chapter looked specifically at mobile phones and their perceived impact, this chapter focuses on the perceived changes brought about by increasing internet and social media use. Majorities of the public in every country surveyed feel the internet is having a positive influence on education, and these assessments are often more positive than they were four years ago. In the three Middle East and North African countries surveyed, people are more pessimistic about the internet’s influence on politics than they were four years ago. And publics are also skeptical about the effect the internet is having on their children.
Generally, people in most countries think mobile phones and the internet have had similar impacts on society – whether for good or for bad. And, although pluralities in most countries say social media have been a good thing for society, large minorities see downsides as well – a sentiment that is even more common among those who do not use social media.
Things have gotten better indeed, but [the mobile phone] also has made us lazier. For the busier ones, it has helped us have everything more within our reach, but there are other times in which this can become counterproductive. Relationships become blurrier. You hardly ever see the other person. It’s become shallow and everything comes down to what you post on Facebook or on Twitter.MAN, 28, MEXICO
Publics largely see comparable influences from mobile phones and the internet
In addition to asking respondents how they think mobile phones have impacted society, the survey asked an identical series of questions about the influence of the internet. By and large, publics feel similarly about the influence of mobile phones and the influence of the internet. Roughly equal shares within most countries say mobile phones and the internet have had a good influence on morality, politics, physical health, local culture, civility and the economy. As was the case with mobile phones, many publics in these countries are especially concerned about the influence the internet has had on children.
Internet users and non-users have fairly similar views on how internet use has impacted many aspects of their societies. But users are somewhat more upbeat than non-users about the internet’s influence on politics and the economy.
But when it comes to the influence these technologies are having on education, many publics do see the influence of the internet and that of mobile phones in different lights. In six of the 11 countries surveyed, more people say the increasing use of the internet is having a good influence on education than say mobile phones are having a good influence on education. Focus groups in four of the countries surveyed revealed some of this tension (see Appendix A for more information on how the groups were conducted). Whereas some focus group participants cited the educational benefits that stem from children using the internet to do their homework or research, others highlighted phone addiction, games and other distractions as things that hinder studies.
Concerning your studies, teachers can put some lessons on the internet or your friends can put things on the internet to study, so if you are far away from university you can have all kinds of information.MAN, 23, TUNISIA
In five countries, people differ in their views of the impact of mobile phones and the internet on family cohesion. Where these differences exist, more say mobile phones have had a good influence on family cohesion than feel the same about the internet.
Venezuelans and Kenyans stand out for their different evaluations of the impacts of mobile phones versus the internet on these aspects of society. Venezuelans are generally more likely to say the internet has had positive influences on many facets of society, while Kenyans are more likely to say mobile phones have had a positive impact.
Internet use has generally risen substantially since 2014, when Pew Research Center last asked people in these emerging economies about the internet’s influence on key facets of their societies.13 With these changes, opinions about the positive and negative impacts of the internet in many countries have also shifted. In general, over time – and as more people have gone online – views of the internet’s influence on society have often grown more positive, especially when it comes to assessments of its influence on the economy and education.
More now say the internet has had a good influence on their country’s economy, education
In many countries, people’s views of the internet’s influence on the economy and education have generally improved in the past four years. In seven of the 10 countries for which trends are available, more people today say the increasing use of the internet has had a good influence on their country’s economy than said the same in 2014. And in six countries, more say the internet’s influence on education is positive compared with four years ago.
For me, WhatsApp is important because I have many groups. For instance, I have maybe 15 salespeople, so I don’t have to call [them] one by one – I just send one message.WOMAN, 35, MEXICO
Publics in Lebanon, Kenya, South Africa, Mexico and Vietnam have grown more positive about the internet’s influence in both areas. Lebanese views of the internet’s influence on education have shifted especially strongly: In 2014, just one-in-five felt the internet was having a good impact on the economy, but today the share has roughly doubled to 42%. Jordanians have also become much more positive about the internet’s influence on education: 71% feel it is having a good influence on education today, compared with less than half (44%) four years earlier.
Rising internet use overall appears to play some role in many publics’ increasingly positive assessments of the internet’s impact on the economy and education: Internet users in some countries are more likely to see the internet’s impact in a positive light. But rising internet adoption is only part of the story. For instance, more South Africans have access to the internet today than did in 2014, but views of the internet’s influence on the economy improved among internet users over the same period as well. Four years ago, 56% of South African internet users felt the internet was having a good influence on the economy, and today, 66% feel it does. In Tunisia, too, internet use has become more widespread since 2014. Yet opinions there about the internet’s influence on their economy and education have actually grown more negative.
In other instances, changes in public sentiment have been driven largely by non-internet users. For example, in 2014, 71% of Kenyan internet users felt the internet was having a good influence on the economy, while a similar portion (67%) say the same today. But among Kenyans who do not use the internet or own a smartphone, views have improved, from 50% expressing optimism about the internet’s influence on the economy in 2014 to 61% saying the same today.
In some countries, views of the internet’s influence on morality and politics have grown more positive – but in others, these views have grown more negative
While many of these publics have generally grown more positive about the internet’s influence on the economy and education in recent years, fewer have grown more positive about its impact on morality and politics. Colombians, Kenyans, Venezuelans and Mexicans have become somewhat more optimistic about the internet’s impact on morality and politics. But Jordanian and Lebanese adults have grown more pessimistic over the same time period.
The greatest change in public opinion on these questions has occurred in Jordan, where the public is much more pessimistic than it was four years ago. In 2014, about a third of Jordanians said the internet was having a good influence on morality and 42% felt it was positively influencing politics. Today, those figures stand at 12% and 31%, respectively.
[Mobile phones and social media have] really led to the spread of hatred and tribalism. Another [issue] about the family [is] cheating, which leads to home breakage and divorce. People just don’t trust each other.MAN, 38, KENYA
In seven of the 11 countries surveyed, half or more say that social media have mostly been a good thing for society. But around one-third or more in eight of these countries express ambivalence – or outright skepticism – about social media’s impact. Vietnamese are the most optimistic about social media, while Indians and Lebanese are notably less positive. But even in India, many more say social media have been good (37%) for society than bad (9%), while about a third do not give an opinion on the matter. Venezuelans offer a split verdict: 42% feel social media have been a good thing, while 43% say they have been bad.
As was true of mobile phones, people in the 11 countries surveyed often feel that social media have been better for them personally than for society as a whole. A median of 63% say social media have been a good thing for them, compared with a median of 57% who say they have been good for society.
Even among those who themselves use social media and messaging apps, more see personal benefits than societal benefits in nearly all countries. This gap is largest in Jordan and Colombia. In these countries, around three-quarters of social media users say social media have been good for them personally – while only around half or fewer say they has been a good thing for society.
Social media users see more societal benefits from the platforms than non-users
Users of social media platforms and messaging apps are often more likely than non-users to view these platforms as having a good impact on society as a whole. These differences are especially notable in Lebanon, India and Jordan, where there is a difference of more than 20 percentage points in the shares of social media users and non-users who say these platforms have been beneficial for society. By contrast, users and non-users in Venezuela, the Philippines and Vietnam tend to see the social impact of these platforms in similar terms.
These differences between users and non-users tend to exist across all age groups and education levels. But in some countries, such as Mexico, Tunisia and Lebanon, younger and more highly educated social media users are more likely to feel positive about social media’s societal effects than older or less-educated users.
For instance, in Mexico, two-thirds of 18- to 29-year-old users feel that social media have mostly been a good thing for society, compared with about half of social media users ages 50 and above. There is a similar 10-point gap on this question between Mexican social media users with a secondary education or more (66%) and users with less than a secondary education (56%).
Via Pew Research Center