VICTORIA, British Columbia — A new report from United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) suggests mobile phones are not only used for communication and commerce, but also encourage literacy, especially among women.
The overall results paint a hopeful picture for the future of literacy in those areas regarding who reads books and stories on mobile devices and why.
Most of the data comes from users of the WorldReader app, which brings thousands of free (and a few paid) books to the feature phones so common in developing countries. People often read on the tiny screens of their mobile phones, or not at all.
Statistics revealed that mobile readers tend to be younger men with at least a high school level education. Women, despite comprising less than a quarter of mobile readers, accounted for two-thirds of the reading rate. On average, men spend just above half an hour a month reading on their phones, while women read for over 200 minutes.
The main issue that prevents online content from being read is the need for a constant connection; material cannot be accessed outside of cell phone range, and in these developing countries, having a cell phone signal is not consistently feasible. Further, there are very few choices available as to the content itself; not enough content is available in the native language or certain genres are seriously lacking.
It should be noted that only 40% of the world’s population is online and in developing countries 16% fewer women than men use the Internet.
Further, in Africa, only 7% of households are connected to the Internet, compared with 77% in Europe.
Some of the research questions used for analysis in this study included: Who are the people reading on mobile phones in developing countries? Why are people reading on their mobile phones? What are mobile readers’ attitudes towards reading and what are the barriers to mobile reading?
Recent data from the United Nations indicate that of the estimated seven billion people on Earth, over six billion now have access to a working mobile phone. To put this number in perspective, only 4.5 billion people have access to a toilet. Collectively, mobile devices are the most ubiquitous information and communication technology (ICT) in history, and as a result, they are often plentiful where books are not.
Mobile phones are inexpensive, in comparison to the cost of a physical book. This capacity is not restricted to smartphones: today even the least expensive mobile handsets allow users to access and read books. Across developing countries, there is evidence of women and men, girls and boys reading multiple books and stories on mobile phones that can be purchased for less than $30.
Data was collected using two methods: a survey delivered through Worldreader Mobile, a mobile reading application and usage tracking on Worldreader Mobileservers. Further, supplementary telephone interviews were carried out to add context and depth to the quantitative findings.
The general consensus in most of these countries was that illiteracy rates are significantly higher than the average of 20% for developing countries. In Ethiopia, for example, the adult illiteracy rate is over 60% for the total population and over 70% for women. In Pakistan, the illiteracy rate is 45% for all adults and 60% for women. Kenya and Zimbabwe have considerably lower adult illiteracy rates of 13% and 8%, respectively. Overall, the average adult illiteracy rate in the focus countries is approximately one-third of the population.
“We now have two years of data proving that people are spending hundreds of hours a month reading short and longform text, using basic feature and Android phones,” said Elizabeth Hensick Wood, director of digital publishing and mobile platforms at Worldreader.
Interestingly, women appear to be using mobile devices as a portal to reading material, in spite of their lower rates of mobile phone ownership. Female users greatly outnumber males at higher levels of usage, and female mobile readers spend significantly more time reading per month than males.
Although people of various ages use mobile technology to access longform reading material, mobile readers are typically young. Older people were noticeably absent from the survey data.
Further, mobile readers tend to be more educated than the general population and female mobile readers are consistently more educated than males. The most active mobile readers are those who have achieved a diploma but have not completed a higher education degree.
“Mobile reading can open educational opportunities to nearly seven billion people, ultimately reducing illiteracy rates forever. In places where physical books are scarce, mobile phones are plentiful. And while mobile phones are still used primarily for basic communication, even the simplest of phones are a gateway to long-form text,” states a release on the survey.
“A key conclusion from this study is that mobile devices can help people develop, sustain and enhance their literacy skills. This is important because literacy opens the door to life-changing opportunities and benefits,” said Mark West from UNESCO, author of the report.
This brings hope to people in developing countries to increase education, and by extension, increase social and economic benefits. Perhaps mobile devices will be the solution to end global poverty in our lifetime.