A recent report by non-partisan, US-based think tank Pew Research Centre has found that the vast majority of adults in emerging and developing countries own – or have access to – a mobile phone, and widely use both social media and messaging apps.
The report looked at mobile phone use by adults over 18 years of age across 11 countries, including Mexico, Venezuela and Colombia; South Africa and Kenya; India, Vietnam and the Philippines; and Tunisia, Jordan and Lebanon.
These countries were selected on the basis that they are all middle-income countries as defined by the World Bank, contain a mixture of people using different kinds of device, offer country-level diversity and variety, vary in market conditions, and in many cases have high levels of internal or external migration.
Researchers found that an average of 53% of people across the nations surveyed had access to smartphones with the capability to access the internet and run apps, including WhatsApp and Facebook, both of which notably enjoyed wide use in these countries. According to the study, an average of 64% of people across the surveyed countries used at least one of seven different social media sites or messaging apps.
Smartphone and social media use were so closely intertwined, in fact, that an average of 91% of smartphone users in these countries said they also used social media, while an average of 81% of social media users said they owned or shared a smartphone.
The report found that people in these nations believed they had been personally helped by mobile phone in many ways, such as helping them to stay in touch with distant relatives and friends, and to obtain news and information about important issues. Furthermore, a majority of adults in all 11 countries surveyed said that the internet had a good impact on education – and a majority said the same about mobile phones specifically.
A smaller percentage of adults in the surveyed countries said mobile phones and social media had been good for society, and the report found that challenges posed by digital life for children were a “notable source of concern”. It was common for parents to say that they attempted to “curtail and surveil they child’s screen time”.
Around 79% of adults in these countries said they believed that “people should be very concerned about children being exposed to harmful or immoral content when using mobile phones”, while an average of 63% of surveyed adults said mobile phones had a “bad influence on children in their country”. They also expressed mixed opinions about the impact of increased connectivity on physical health and morality.
These concerns mirror those expressed by journalists and politicians in the developed world concerning the impacts of social media on elections (e.g. alleged Russian bots on Twitter during the 2016 US Presidential election), the behaviour of children and young adults, and the spread of far-right conspiracy theories on social media, among other worries.
Some of the issues listed in the survey spanned all the countries included in the survey, although some issues were “nation-specific”, such as addiction to mobile phones. Over half of mobile phone users in five of the countries described their phone as “something they couldn’t live without”, whereas users in the other six countries were more likely to describe it as “something they don’t always need”.