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Mobile connectivity in emerging economies: Boon or Bane?

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  • Pew Research survey says while India has over 500 mn internet users, nearly half of Indian adults (47%) say they have a basic phone that cannot connect to the internet
  • A majority of people say mobiles and social media have mostly been ‘good for them personally, but somewhat less so for society’, says the survey in 11 developing countries

India currently accounts for more than 10% of the global smartphone market. However, smartphone ownership rates are the lowest in India among the 11 developing countries surveyed by Pew Research Center.

Further, while the country has over 500 million internet users, nearly half of Indian adults (47%) say they have a basic phone that cannot connect to the internet, according to country-specific findings drawn from the survey released on 8 March.

India, according to the survey, is also one of only two countries in which a majority of adults do not use one of the seven social media platforms or messaging services--Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, WhatsApp, Snapchat and Viber, plus the dating app Tinder--included in the survey that was conducted among 28,122 adults in 11 economically emerging countries from September 7 to December 7, 2018.

The survey revealed that the vast majority of adults in these countries own, or have access to, a mobile phone of some kind. 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. Further, "smartphones and social media have melded so thoroughly that for many they go hand-in-hand," the survey notes.

Consider this. A median of 91% of smartphone users in these 11 countries also use social media, while a median of 81% of social media users say they own or share a smartphone. Median percentages are used to help readers see overall patterns. The median is the middle number in a list of figures sorted in ascending or descending order.

Boon or bane?

A majority of people surveyed in these 11 developing countries say mobile phones and social media have mostly been "good for them personally, (but) somewhat less so for society". 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. In fact, a median of 27% think social media have been a mostly bad thing for society.

However, according to the Pew survey, 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, the survey noted. Moreover, a majority of people in Jordan, Lebanon and Tunisia view these technologies as having a negative influence on health.

People in these 11 nations, according to the Pew survey, say mobile phones have helped them personally and that the internet has had a good impact on education. However, simultaneously, "...the challenges that digital life can pose for children are a particularly notable source of concern". Some 79% of adults in these 11 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. According to the survey, these adults also expressed "mixed opinions about the impact of increased connectivity on physical health and morality".

Do we need a mobile phone?

Across the 11 countries surveyed, mobile phone users fall into two camps. 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. Futher, adults aged 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.

Utility value 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, the Pew survey notes.


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, the survey notes. But Tunisians, Lebanese and Jordanians are now less likely to say this compared with 2014.


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. The education gap is most pronounced in India, where more educated people are 41 points more likely to use a smartphone.


Ownership rates among women vary significantly across the countries--from a low of 56% in India to a high of 96% in Vietnam.

Phone sharing

In India, a sizeable portion of phone sharers think phones are too complicated to use (26%).


While smartphone users are generally younger and more educated, the opposite is true of basic phone users, the survey notes. People who use these more technically limited devices tend to be older and have lower levels of education. Feature phone use, on the other hand, doesn’t consistently vary by age or education.

Social networks

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 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.

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. 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.

Internet usage

India, according to the Pew survey, has the smallest share of internet users of the countries surveyed--38% of Indians use the internet. However, the survey adds that a majority of Indians ages 18 to 29 (55%) go online, as do a majority of Indians with a secondary degree or more (67%).

However, the definition of an internet user used in this report seeks to capture the many ways in which people are likely to go online. In addition to asking people directly whether they use the internet, people are also classified as internet users if they use any of the seven major social media or messaging services included in the survey (Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Viber and Tinder) or use a smartphone or feature phone that can connect to the internet. 

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