Rich, Young, Educated People Spend the Most Time Online

The latest Pew data shows a universal trend: Adults younger than 34 are far more likely than older generations to own smartphones and use the Internet.

A woman uses her iPhone to go online in Seoul in 2011. (Truth Leem / Reuters)

All over the world, the people who spend the most time online tend to be young, educated, and wealthy. Yet even among older people who have lower incomes and less education, smartphone adoption and Internet usage continues to climb dramatically.

Those were some of the big takeaways from a new Pew Research Center report on global Internet use on Monday. In nearly every country analyzed, in both developed nations and emerging economies, Pew found Millennials (people between the ages of 18 and 34) were much more likely to be Internet and smartphone users compared with those who are 35 and older. “The size of the gap varies by country,” the report says, “but the pattern is universal.”

The citizens of rich countries are also most likely to own smartphones, including 88 percent of South Koreans, 77 percent of Australians, 74 percent of Israelis, and 72 percent of Americans. (It’s worth noting that, although only 17 percent of Indians own smartphones, India is still one of the world’s largest markets for the devices because of its huge population.)

Some European countries have pronounced age-based divisions between those who own smartphones and those who don’t—despite relatively high rates of Internet access. In France, for instance, 85 percent of Millennials own smartphones, but only 35 percent of people older than 35 own them. (Similarly large gaps exist in Poland and Germany, Pew found.)

The higher rates of smartphone ownership among younger people may explain why they’re also more likely to access the Internet at least daily and participate in social networking at higher rates than their older counterparts—if you have Internet access right there in your pocketbook all day, wherever you go, no wonder you spend more time online.

More than three-quarters of Internet users across the globe reported using sites like Facebook and Twitter. But, interestingly, the people who used these sites the most frequently tended to live in areas with lower overall Internet access.

“Roughly three-quarters or more of Internet users in the Middle East (86 percent), Latin America (82 percent) and Africa (76 percent) say they use social networks,” Pew said, “compared with 71 percent in the U.S. and 65 percent across six European nations.”

The most frequent Internet users, people who said they accessed the web several times a day, are mainly concentrated in wealthy nations like Australia, Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, Israel, and Japan. About seven out of 10 people surveyed in those countries reported going online several times a day. (Emerging economies like Lebanon and Chile showed similar rates.)

Looking at how frequently people reported going online offers a more nuanced look at global Internet usage than just looking at how many people have access. For instance, although South Korea is the country with the highest level of Internet access—94 percent of people there use the Internet, and 88 percent of them own smartphones—just over half of the people surveyed there said they use the Internet more than once a day. That means South Korea’s usage is more on par with countries like Brazil and China, where fewer than two-thirds of people report having Internet access.

At the same time, though, global Internet usage is changing rapidly. (And remember: The data from Pew’s report is already dated; it comes from a May 2015 survey.) Consider Turkey, where 72 percent of those surveyed report being Internet users, compared with 41 percent two years ago. Smartphone ownership is growing at an “extraordinary” rate, according to Pew, which found the median of 21 percent global smartphone-ownership in 2013 had swelled to 37 percent in 2015. Some emerging economies already have relatively high rates of smartphone ownership, including Malaysia (65 percent) and China (58 percent), which, because of its population, is the world’s largest smartphone market.

And yet there are other persistent gaps and divisions in global access, including “significant” gender gaps in half the countries surveyed. Here’s how Pew explains it:

In 20 nations, men are more likely than women to use the internet. These differences are especially stark in African nations. Elsewhere, equal shares of men and women use the Internet. But large gender gaps also appear on reported smartphone ownership (men are more likely to own a smartphone) in many countries, including Mexico, Nigeria, Kenya, and Ghana.

The gender divide appears in every sub-Saharan African nation that Pew surveyed. And although gender plays a smaller role than age, education, or income in determining whether someone is likely to have Internet access, it may be a barrier that lasts longer as more people go online.

“There does seem to be a base level of economic development at which national wealth no longer affects Internet rates,” Pew found. For example, South Korea’s GDP per capita is lower than the United States’s, but more South Koreans have Internet access than Americans. “In other words, as the Internet becomes more ubiquitous worldwide,” Pew wrote, “national wealth may no longer be the major driving force behind access.”