INASIA

Insights and Analysis

The Rise of Smart Phones in Cambodia Challenges Social Norms

December 16, 2015

By Silas Everett

According to a new study, nearly 100 percent of Cambodians now own a mobile phone. In what is perhaps an even more significant trend, as a subset of mobile phones, smart phone ownership grew by 41 percent in the past year.

Cambodia Smart Phone

While Cambodia has reduced poverty levels by half in just a decade, 60 percent of the population still lacks connection to the public electricity grid. As such, the smart phone is an encouraging symbol of modernization and is rapidly become a necessary tool of modern life. Photo/Flickr user Philip Brookes

The study, conducted by the Open Institute, and supported by The Asia Foundation and USAID/Development Innovations, found that overall smart phone penetration is now at 39.5 percent. The rapid growth in smart phones is closely linked to the blistering pace of Cambodia’s economic growth, averaging 7 percent in the past five years and poised to soon graduate to lower middle-income status.

While Cambodia has reduced poverty levels by half in just a decade, 60 percent of the population still lacks connection to the public electricity grid. As such, the smart phone is an encouraging symbol of modernization and is rapidly become a necessary tool of modern life. Increasingly, Cambodians are thriving on their new-found connectivity, especially young people, eager to experience the world beyond the confines of the village (an estimated 80 percent of Cambodians live in rural areas).

This year’s survey shows telling differences in smart phone ownership across the country, and offers important insights into the changing shape of Cambodia’s demographics and distribution of social and economic empowerment. Only 15.2 percent of those who have had no formal education own a smart phone, compared to 82 percent of those who have a university degree. The survey found that some 51.7 percent of urban residents had at least one smartphone, compared to 34 percent of rural residents. Additionally, 46.8 percent of men said they owned a smart phone, while only 32.3 percent of women said they owned a smart phone. This means that for every 100 women using a smart phone, there are an estimated 145 men using one.

These differences are becoming increasingly important as the smart phone is fast becoming the primary conduit for accessing news and information. Over 34 percent of Cambodians surveyed said that they use or had used Facebook (a 48.2% increase from 2014 and 91% increase from 2013). While 70.6 percent of respondents say their smart phones are used for accessing Facebook, of these Facebook account holders, 80.5 percent said that they use it only on their phone.

The main reason respondents cited for joining Facebook was “to stay in touch with friends.” After respondents said they used Facebook for some time, they were more likely to use Facebook to “get information about events or hot news in Cambodia.” In fact, respondents said that Facebook and the internet were the second most important sources of information following TV, which was first, and radio, which is now the third most important source of information. Only two years ago, respondents were twice as likely to listen to radio than use Facebook or the internet.

Perhaps not surprisingly, internet usage was found to increase dramatically among younger and more urban respondents. Young people between 15 and 25 years old were five times more likely to use the internet than those between 40 and 65. Almost twice as many urban users than rural users claimed to use internet and Facebook. These results suggest that online activity in Cambodia may be representative of a much younger, more urban demographic than previously thought.

More surprisingly are differences in online access according to education and gender. Those who studied or have completed university were 15 times more likely to access the internet with their phone than those who never attended formal school. Furthermore, almost twice as many men surveyed use the internet and Facebook than women. While the gender gap in education in Cambodia is rapidly closing, the survey results suggest female participation is lagging when it comes to accessing information online.

Not only does owning a smart phone provide “membership” to Cambodia’s growing middle class, it provides new ways to access news and information – and as such, is playing a role in changing expectations for jobs, education, and lifestyle, particularly among the country’s youth.

How these rapid changes in smart-phone uptake influence users’ social, political, and economic preferences, and their attitudes and behaviors have yet to be explored. Equally important to understand is how smart-phone users as a proxy for a “modernizing” demographic group is influencing the “traditional” demographic groups. While these dynamics certainly require looking offline for further study, for now what is clear is that the rise of smart phones in Cambodia reveals both challenges in how to close the gender and age gap in access to online information, and opportunities for leveraging the internet for civic engagement, education, and access to worlds of new information that become available online every day.

Silas Everett is The Asia Foundation’s country representative in Cambodia, and can be reached at silas.everett@asiafoundation.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and not those of The Asia Foundation or its funders.

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