India at center of digital divide, reveals Pew survey

A man stands in front of a screen during a Google event in New Delhi, September 27, 2016. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi/File Photo

NEW YORK – India is deluged by smartphones. There is fierce competition by airtime carriers for market share, be it in urban or rural areas. The billion plus population country has already grabbed 10% of the global smartphone market. Nevertheless, smartphone ownership rates in India are the lowest amongst some of the top middle income countries globally, according to a new research report published today, on Friday, by the Pew Research Center.

Pew has researched extensively the use and effect of smartphones and social media in the US over the decade. It’s the first time, however, that they have focused on other countries.

The new survey of emerging economies – including the benefits and challenges that digital connectivity brings to people’s lives and societies – was conducted among 28,122 adults in 11 countries from September 7 to December 7, 2018.

The countries included in the first round of the continuing series of surveys were, Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia, South Africa, Kenya, India, Vietnam, Philippines, Tunisia, Jordan and Lebanon.

A key finding of the survey revealed that while India has over 500 million Internet users, it’s the connectivity that’s missing, to expand service into rural areas. Forty seven percent of Indians have a basic phone that cannot connect to the internet. Pew notes that despite the half a billion number, India still ranks lowest in the list, with only 38% of the population connected to the Internet.

All those small Internet cafes in India do make a difference, as Pew notes that a majority of Indians ages 18 to 29 (55%) go online.

Significantly, the gender gap here too is exposed as India has the lowest ownership rates among women: only 56% women in India have a phone compared to a high of 96% in Vietnam.

Another anomaly is that while social media continues to see India as one of the biggest success stories, with Facebook and WhatsApp making huge inroads in the last few years, majority of adults in India 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. Kenya too falls in the same category.

The Pew report notes also another anomaly: while India has the smallest percentage of Facebook users (24%) of the 11 countries surveyed, it has the largest net number of active Facebook users in the world. So even as Zuckerberg may be thinking of moving Facebook to a WeChat model of business popular in China, with a mobile payment feature built in, India may struggle to adapt to yet another new platform.

The Pew survey comprises mainly of median observations from the 11 countries surveyed.

Key findings include that mobile phone users in each of the countries surveyed are more likely to say their phone is something that frees them rather than something that ties them down. Meanwhile, a larger share of mobile phone users in seven countries believe their phone helps them save time rather than waste time.

A median of 70% of adults across the 11 countries say mobile phones have been a mostly good thing for society, while a smaller share (57%) say the same of social media. A similar pattern exists when assessing how these technologies impact them personally. A median of 82% say that mobile phones have been mostly good for them in their personal lives, compared with 63% who feel this way about social media. In contrast, a median of 19% say that social media has been mostly bad for them personally, and 27% say it has been mostly bad for society.

Those in every country surveyed worry about the impact of mobile phones on children, Pew said.

Across these 11 emerging economies, a median of 79% of adults say people should be very concerned about children being exposed to harmful or immoral content when using their phones. In most countries, half or more say mobile phones and the Internet have had a bad impact on children – more than the percentage who say they are concerned about the influence of technology on other facets of society included in the survey, such as politics, local culture and morality.

Parents are taking steps to monitor and regulate what their child does online or on their mobile phone. A median of 52% of parents whose children have a mobile phone say they at times limit how much time their child spends on their phone, and a median of 50% say they monitor what their child is looking at or doing on their mobile phone.

There is also concern about the pitfalls and hazards of fake news. While mobile phone users largely agree that their phones help them get news, many are concerned about the spread of misinformation when using their phone. A median of 79% of mobile phone users across the 11 countries surveyed say their mobile phones have helped them get information and news about important issues.

Smartphone users are particularly likely to say their devices bring these benefits compared with those with more basic devices. But, these perceived benefits can often coexist with concerns, Pew notes. A median of 64% of adults also say people should be very concerned about exposure to false or incorrect information when using their mobile phones.

A median of 44% of adults each say the increasing use of mobile phones and the Internet have had a good influence on politics, while a median of about three-in-ten say each has had a bad influence.

Public attitudes have become more positive about the Internet’s influence on certain facets of society, like the economy and education, in most countries surveyed. In seven of the 10 countries where trend data are available, larger shares today believe that the increasing use of the Internet has had a good influence on the country’s economy than did so in 2014.

A key finding is also that a notable share of adults express concerns about the impact of mobile phones on interpersonal communication. For instance, a median of 48% of adults say people should be very concerned about people losing the ability to communicate face-to-face when using their mobile phones.

What’s clear is that growth and proliferation of mobile phones will continue globally.

A recent report says there are seven billion connected devices globally, mostly comprising mobile phones, but that would increase 15-fold by 2025, The Indian Express reported this week.

While India await the launch of 5G, despite poor backhaul fiber optic network in most parts, the Pew research makes it clear that focus should be to increase online connectivity in rural areas; have more people get access to smartphones, women in particular, to boost productivity and growth in small and agrarian businesses.

(Sujeet Rajan is Executive Editor, Parikh Worldwide Media. Email him: Follow him on Twitter @SujeetRajan1)



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