Income Governs Internet, Mobile Use in Developing World

Posted March 21st, 2014 at 2:07 pm (UTC-4)
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Young, educated people around the world are more likely to embrace Internet and mobile technology. If you missed our recent post, the young and educated go online at higher rates than other age groups and people without a college degree. They are more likely to engage in social media interactions and more likely to own a cell phone or a smartphone.

But age and education are only part of the story. Per capita income also modulates Internet and mobile tech use, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey of 24 emerging and developing countries.

“If you are looking at the emerging and developing world, there’s a pretty strong correlation … between per capita income and the likelihood people are using these types of technologies,” said Richard Wike, Director of Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project.

Internet use, he adds, is clearly linked to national income. “If you look at the countries in our survey – places like Argentina, Chile, Russia – they have the highest rates of Internet usage. And they are also among the wealthiest countries that we sampled,” he said.

Conversely, Internet use is much lower in some of the Sub-Saharan African or Asian countries included in the survey. “These countries that have much lower per capita incomes are much less likely to have high rates of Internet usage,” Wike said.

That is true of two of the poorest countries surveyed – Pakistan and Uganda, which register some of the lowest online connectivity, with about nine-in-ten reporting that they never go online, compared to countries with higher per capita income like Bolivia or Kenya or Jordan.

In many cases, the disparity is closely linked to the class of the population. Less privileged populations, particularly working class populations trying to put food on the table, often do not have the time to socialize or acquire new skills, says Microsoft Research’s Principal Researcher, Danah Boyd, a Fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center and a Research Assistant Professor at New York University.

And because of their situation, they tend to “want to open the doors for their children with the hopes that they can… be better off than they themselves are,” she added.

It is then no surprise that income disparities also extend to cell phone and smartphone ownership, although that scene is changing.

None of the countries surveyed had a majority saying that they own a smartphone yet, said Wike. But significant minorities in many of them say they own a smartphone. And “more than half in every country we surveyed say they own a cell phone,” he said.

In some cases, cell phones are pervasive partially due to lack of landline connections.

In Jordan, Russia, China, Chile, and South Africa, for example, “nine-in-ten or more say they own a cell phone,” Wike added. Mobile phone owners accounted for 95 percent in Jordan, 95 percent in China, 94 percent in Russia and 91 percent in South Africa.

The more expensive smartphones are less common. “Income is definitely a factor,” said Wike.

Smartphone ownership accounts for at least 20 percent in 11 countries, according to the survey. And Wike says “this may well rise rapidly over the next few years.”

Whatever the device, mobile technology is changing lives, especially in Africa. Wike says two-thirds of cell phone owners report sending or receiving payment on their mobile devices. This is particularly true of Kenya, which pioneered Africa’s mobile transactions, and to a lesser extent, Uganda.

Governments and private companies are focusing on making mobile payments available to people and encouraging them to use them. “And we see that is something that people who have cell phones have readily embraced,” said Wike.

The survey already provides evidence that “technology is a way to empower people,” he added.

“Economically, they can use it for things like making or receiving payments,” he said. “In terms of political engagement or political expression, we know that many people are going online to social networking sites and exchanging their views about important issues of the day.

Whether it’s economic or political, Wike says people are using the Internet and mobile technology to “empower themselves” and find new ways to participate in public life.

VOA’s Diana Logreira contributed to this report.

Aida Akl
Aida Akl is a journalist working on VOA's English Webdesk. She has written on a wide range of topics, although her more recent contributions have focused on technology. She has covered both domestic and international events since the mid-1980s as a VOA reporter and international broadcaster.

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