Emerging Countries Surge Ahead of U.S. in Social Media, Cell Phone Use

Some developing nations are fast catching up to the United States when it comes to using mobile devices and social media as the U.S. still struggles with high prices for slow connectivity.

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A new study published by the Pew Research Center finds that some developing nations are fast catching up to the United States when it comes to using mobile devices and social media. It’s easy to forget that online ubiquity doesn’t stretch across the globe, where the adoption of the Internet and takes place in a much different manner. While fewer people are connected in these emerging markets, those who are, are on the cutting edge of new technologies and services. As Pew points out, the majority of people in the 24 developing countries surveyed are still offline.

Over half of those surveyed have a cellphone, compared to 91 percent of American adults, but the numbers vary wildly when it comes to smartphones. Lebanon leads the pack with 45 percent using smartphones, while in Pakistan, only 3 percent use smartphones. And while texting is the most popular use of cellphones, with 78 percent of people using devices to send messages, other uses vary by country. Cellphone users in Latin America are more likely to snap photos and shoot video, while accessing political news is more of a priority in Venezuela and China.

The U.S. still leads the way in Internet adoption, with 85 percent of the population now online, but a social media saturation point means that developing countries, where some social networks are still relatively new, are using them at much higher rates. As much as 73 percent of Americans use social media sites like Twitter and Facebook, the same number as Brazil, but Turkey, Russia and especially Egypt have all surpassed the U.S. in their use. Social media use has also provided a novel glimpse into the lives of others in developing countries, with many people reporting they discovered someone’s political beliefs were different than previously thought because of something shared online.

Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, explains the growing use of social media in emerging nations.

“That means that many of the countries in our global survey show a higher share of internet users as social media aficionados. However, it is important to note that internet access is much less common in all of these emerging and developing countries compared to the U.S., so as a total proportion of the population social networking usage is still practiced only among a minority in most of the countries surveyed. But those who go online in poorer countries are early adopters and they are enthusiastic to try the newest digital technology applications. Thus, these countries have a relatively modest share of their entire population online, but those who are online are eager for social media to a greater degree than Americans are.” 

The frustrating reality for some Americans is that despite the ubiquity of access, they are often paying steep prices for slow Internet connection. A recent Akamai report, The State of the Internet, placed the U.S. ninth in the list of countries based on Internet connectivity speed, behind Latvia and the Czech Republic. South Korea had the highest connection speeds, twice as fast as the U.S., which boasts a weak average of 7.2 megabits per second. Low-income neighborhoods in the U.S. often tolerate lower speeds, and the FCC stepped in last year to improve connectivity in America’s large rural swathes.

One of the most fascinating finds is the continuing phenomenon in some African nations of using cellphones to send and receive payments. In Kenya, an enormous 68 percent of people regularly bank on their phones, and neighboring Uganda followed closely behind at 50 percent.

Still, there is hope. Let’s not forget about Kansas City. And Myspace is still popular in China, El Salvador and Kenya.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.