Text of my ‘When Worlds Collide’ column published in Ceylon Today Sunday broadsheet newspaper on 20 October 2013
Chamara Pahalawattage had just turned 18 when we met him in early 2009. By then, he was already into his sixth mobile phone.
An only child raised by a widowed mother, Chamara — a resident of Gonapola, in Sri Lanka’s western province — developed an interest in mobiles while in his mid teens. He bought his first mobile at 16.
Since then, he tried to keep up with technology by buying second-hand phones with better features: he’d paid LKR 7,500 (US$ 65 at the time) for his latest only a few weeks earlier. Besides voice and SMS (texting), his phone supported MP3, video recording, song downloading, voice recording and other functions.
After leaving school, Chamara started assisting at construction sites. The enterprising young man boosted his chances of work by spreading his phone number around.
“I get calls asking me to come for work. The phone makes it so easy,” he said. “Otherwise people will have to come looking for me…or I have to go to them.”
Chamara’s daily wages came to LKR 700 plus lunch. That augmented LKR 4,000 a month his mother made cooking meals at a nearby factory.
After a hard day’s work, he liked listening to the radio, or swapping songs with friends — all using their mobiles.
We video filmed a day in the life of Chamara as part of a series profiling telephone users at the bottom of the (income) pyramid (BOP) in emerging Asian economies. It was commissioned by the regional ICT research organisation LIRNEasia, which wanted to illustrate their large sample surveys on the subject with specific case studies.
Going by household income, Chamara was certainly at BOP. He spent an average of LKR 300 – 450 per month on phone reloads. Like other BOP telephone users we interviewed in India, Philippines and Thailand, he was thrifty with value added services that cost extra.
“Some of my friends access the internet through their phones and download songs,” he said. “I then get these songs from them. My phone has bluetooth. I use it to transfer songs from my friends’ phones.”
Defining Digital Natives
Does all that make Chamara a digital native?
Not exactly, if we go strictly by a definition of digital natives as “networked youth aged 15-24 years with five or more years of online experience”. But it’s hard to define and measure this modern day phenomenon resulting from the proliferation of the web and other digital technologies.
That particular definition has been used in a new model developed by the Georgia Institute of Technology in the United States and International Telecommunication Union (ITU) to estimate the number of digital natives worldwide. The findings were included in the 2013 edition of Measuring the Information Society released by ITU in early October 2013.
The study is the first attempt to measure, by country, the world’s “digital natives” – a term typically used to categorize young people born around the time the personal computer was introduced and have spent their lives connected with technology.
The report shows that in 2012, there were around 363 million digital natives (DN). That comes to 5.2% of the total global population of 7 billion, and 30% of the global youth population.
Some 4.2% of the people in developing countries are digital natives, while in the developed countries digital natives account for 10% of the population on the whole.
At country level, South Korea topped with 99.6% of its youth being DN, followed by Japan, the Netherlands, Finland and Denmark.
In the developing world, less than half of the 503 million young Internet users were DN in 2012. However, that segment is set to more than double by 2017.
But the more significant percentage that is the number of digital natives as compared to a country’s total population, according to Georgia Tech Associate Professor Michael Best, who co-led the study.
“That’s because a country’s future will be defined by today’s young people and by technology,” he says. “Countries with a high proportion of young people who are already online are positioned to define and lead the digital age of tomorrow.”
The countries with the highest proportion of digital natives among their population are mostly rich nations, which have high levels of overall Internet penetration. By this measure, Iceland tops the list with 13.9%, followed by New Zealand, South Korea, Malaysia, Lithuania and the United States. At the bottom end of this ranking were Timor Leste (0.1%), Myanmar and Sierra Leone (0.2% each).
China, the country with the largest population of digital natives, is very close to the median: digital natives made up 5.6% of its population in 2012.
South Asian rankings
Sri Lanka ranked at No 143 among 180 countries assessed, with 1.4% of the country’s population (or 9.5% of the total youth) considered digitally native. The basis for estimating 301,853 DNs in Sri Lanka is not clear.
In the South Asian (SAARC) region, the Maldives ranked the highest (No 61) with 8.2% of its population qualifying as DNs. Others were at: Pakistan 115; Bhutan 123; India 139; Afghanistan 149; Bangladesh 153; and Nepal 158.
However, these rankings and percentage need to be viewed with some caution. The proportion of youth population varies across countries, as do Internet penetration and user estimates.
The model for counting DNs was developed using data collected by the ITU through surveys conducted around the globe. Some researchers have questioned the whole basis of how ITU counts the number of Internet users in a country.
Much depends on how survey questions are framed, as well as on user perceptions. For example, in LIRNEasia’s qualitative surveys in Java (Indonesia), some interviewees who said they didn’t use Internet then went on to talk about being on Facebook!
She has drawn attention to Malaysia’s high ranking (No 4 globally). ITU’s researchers were surprised by this middle-income country having one of the highest proportions of digital natives (13.4% of total population, and 74.7% of its youth).
With youth comprising 18% of their population, Malaysia does not have a particularly large youth “bulge”. Instead, the main explanation for Malaysia’s position near the top is the high estimated proportion of youth who have at least five years of Internet use – primarily through the schools system.
“This news is food for thought for those who still pursue the ‘telecentre’ model of Internet access strategy as in India, Sri Lanka and other South Asian countries,” says Dr Gamage.
Look for Nuances
Can one global method sufficiently capture the many and varied ways in which youth in emerging economies adopt digital technologies for their work and leisure? Resourceful young men and women – like Chamara we profiled – pose a challenge to statisticians and researchers.
Counting Internet users itself is fraught with definitional, perceptional and other difficulties because many accounts have multiple users, and some users go online using more than one device.
By June 2013, the Telecommunications Regulatory Commission (TRCSL) reported a total of 437,725 fixed internet subscriptions and 1,037,901 mobile internet subscriptions in Sri Lanka. Together, this came to just under 1.5 million Internet subscriptions.
Assuming an average 2 users per subscription, the number of Internet users could be in the range of (at least) 3 million — or 15% of total population. The actual figure could be higher. Nobody really knows.
Inter-governmental agencies like ITU draw national data from official sources like TRC. But local nuances can get eclipsed when these are factored into global level analyses and comparisons.
All the more reason why we need large sample surveys on how our society is adopting and adapting digital and online media. The ‘aerial view’ from Geneva needs to be matched by regular ground-truthing to understand what is going on.