February 22, 2016

Smartphone Ownership and Internet Usage Continues to Climb in Emerging Economies

But advanced economies still have higher rates of technology use

Technology usage rates increasing in emerging economies, but still lag behind rich countriesAs the world becomes increasingly interconnected, both economically and socially, technology adoption remains one of the defining factors in human progress. To that end, there has been a noticeable rise over the past two years in the percentage of people in the emerging and developing nations surveyed by Pew Research Center who say that they use the internet and own a smartphone. And while people in advanced economies still use the internet more and own more high-tech gadgets, the rest of the emerging world is catching up.1

In 2013, a median of 45% across 21 emerging and developing countries reported using the internet at least occasionally or owning a smartphone. In 2015, that figure rose to 54%, with much of that increase coming from large emerging economies such as Malaysia, Brazil and China. By comparison, a median of 87% use the internet across 11 advanced economies surveyed in 2015, including the U.S. and Canada, major Western European nations, developed Pacific nations (Australia, Japan and South Korea) and Israel.2 This represents a 33-percentage-point gap compared with emerging and developing nations.

Two-thirds worldwide use the internet, but fewer do in Africa and South AsiaFor smartphone ownership, the digital divide between less advanced economies and developed economies is 31 points in 2015. But smartphone ownership rates in emerging and developing nations are rising at an extraordinary rate, climbing from a median of 21% in 2013 to 37% in 2015. And overwhelming majorities in almost every nation surveyed report owning some form of mobile device, even if they are not considered “smartphones.”

Smartphones are more common in Europe, U.S., less so in developing countriesWhile internet access has been rising in emerging and developing nations, those worldwide who have internet access are voracious users. Roughly three-quarters of adult internet users across the 40 countries surveyed in 2015 say that they use the internet at least once a day, with majorities in many countries saying that they access the web “several times a day.”

Internet users in emerging world are more frequent users of social networks compared with U.S. and Europe

Once online, 76% of internet users across the 40 countries surveyed use social networking sites, such as Facebook and Twitter.3 And the most avid social networkers are found in regions with lower internet rates. Roughly three-quarters or more of internet users in the Middle East (86%), Latin America (82%) and Africa (76%) say they use social networks, compared with 71% in the U.S. and 65% across six European nations.

Overall, internet users in emerging and developing countries are more likely to use social media compared with those in the developed world. It is important to remember, however, that internet access rates in the emerging and developing world still trail those of advanced economies, so the number of people participating in social networking is still smaller as a share of the total population in many of these emerging countries.

Internet and smartphone rates are also related to overall country wealth. Richer nations tend to have higher internet access rates and higher reported smartphone ownership.

The strong relationship between per capita income and internet access, smartphone ownership

Adults who ...

Roll over points to view individual country data.

Correlation: 0.87

* Includes those who use the internet at least occasionally or report owning a smartphone.

Note: Percentages based on total sample. IMF data not available for Palestinian territories.

Source: Spring 2015 Global Attitudes survey. Q70 & Q72. Data for GDP per capita (PPP) from IMF World Economic Outlook Database, October 2015, accessed Dec. 16, 2015.

Roll over points to view individual country data.

Correlation: 0.84

† Includes adults who report owning a smartphone.

Note: Percentages based on total sample. IMF data not available for Palestinian territories.

Source: Spring 2015 Global Attitudes survey. Q71 & Q72. Data for GDP per capita (PPP) from IMF World Economic Outlook Database, October 2015, accessed Dec. 16, 2015.

But as people in emerging and developing economies grow richer and become better educated, technology use is likely to grow. As in previous years, within every country surveyed with sufficient sample size to analyze, people with more education and higher incomes are more likely to use the internet or own a smartphone than those with lower incomes and less education. This is true in both the developing and developed world.

Additionally, within nearly every country, Millennials (those ages 18 to 34) are much more likely to be internet and smartphone users compared with those ages 35 and older. This significant age gap appears in both advanced economies and among emerging and developing nations. Younger internet users also tend to access the internet at least daily and participate in social networking at higher rates than their older counterparts.

These are among the main findings of a newly released Pew Research Center survey conducted in 40 nations among 45,435 respondents from March 25 to May 27, 2015.

The demographic digital divide is real and pervasive

* Includes adults who use the internet at least occasionally or report owning a smartphone.

** Russia, Tanzania and Uganda excluded from education due to insufficient sample size. Turkey and Venezuela excluded from income due to insufficient sample size.

Note: Percentages based on total sample. All reported differences are statistically significant.

Source: Spring 2015 Global Attitudes survey. Q70 & Q72.

Other key findings from our survey include:

  1. For more information on how countries are sorted into advanced, emerging and developing economies, see Appendix A.
  2. Data from the U.S. is from a 2015 April-May survey. For more complete figures regarding technology use in the U.S., see here.
  3. For a complete list of country-specific social networks and examples of the types of smartphones asked about in each country, see Appendices B and C.