Opinion: The push and pull of mobile phones — and what it means for girls

Young girls using a mobile phone in rural Makurdi, Benue state, Nigeria. Photo by: ©STARS / Kristian Buus / CC BY-NC-ND

Should a 16-year old have a phone? For many people, the answer is an automatic “yes.” They point to the role a phone can have in helping young people communicate in an emergency, get information online, participate in online banking, and a host of other functions. In an increasingly connected world, a phone is seen as a gateway to adulthood and a necessary device to have in one’s pocket.

In many places around the world, however, the reaction and conversation about phone access have two paths: If the 16-year old in question is a boy, there might be a shrug of the shoulders and a comment, “If he can afford it, he should have it.” But if the teen is a girl, the conversation changes. Safety is still an issue, but this time it is around concerns that owning or using a phone puts a girl in danger — of kidnapping or falling pregnant, for example.

Girl Effect’s research, conducted in partnership with Vodafone Foundation, helps us understand more about girls, boys, and mobile phones, including their access to phones, the ways they use them and what they think of them. The research surveyed more than 3,000 girls and boys, women and men from 25 countries around the world, with in-depth qualitative interviews with more than 1,300 respondents.

What emerged was a complex picture of incentives and disincentives — a push and pull — toward and away from the mobile phone.

Phones’ benefits were universally acknowledged. Both girls and boys talked about using them for communication, for homework, and for local and global news and information. Unsurprisingly, incentives don’t stop at simple utility — girls and boys talked about using phones to keep up with friends and relieve boredom.

Along with the incentives, though, are powerful disincentives. Boys mention cost — as do girls, but for them, the device can be associated with negative consequences once they have access. For girls, the disincentive is typically personalized, and long-lasting.

There is a perception that the phone itself is a danger to the girl. The phone is seen as a negative pathway specific to girls. As one of the research respondents put it: “If parents give their son a mobile phone, the community doesn't say anything, but when parents give a girl a phone, the community asks questions.”

Social perceptions about phones contribute to a considerable gap in phone ownership and access between boys and girls. On average, across Rwanda, Malawi, Tanzania, Nigeria, India, and Bangladesh, boys are 1.5 times more likely to own a phone than girls. Without a phone of their own, many girls borrow them — often secretly, or for just a few minutes at a time.

Without regular access, girls are more likely to think phones are unsafe. In our study, 47 percent of the sampled girls who were borrowers said that phones made them less safe, compared to 33 percent of phone owners.

Girls’ tech literacy also lags behind. While girls mentioned using phones to keep in touch with family and friends and generally “learn new things,” boys specifically mentioned using the internet to search for jobs, use social media, and read the news.  

Although girls’ access is limited, the pull toward a phone is still compelling. Even if it means borrowing a phone for quick snatches of time, the motivation to get hold of one is high. But this incentive is often not enough to overcome the social barriers that label phones as harmful to girls. When phones are seen as dangerous and access is denied, girls have fewer opportunities to use them — to try features, explore, and create. And in situations where girls are using phones secretly, they will lack the support to learn how to use them safely and decrease the potential for exploitation or harm.

This has implications not only for the short term, but also puts girls at a distinct disadvantage in a world that is increasingly digital. Their ability to participate as digital citizens is constrained. If girls are already behind in terms of access to technology, the emerging gender digital divide could widen over time, instead of narrow.

There are a number of ways we can address this situation:

First, we need to pay attention to everyday access. In ongoing surveys of girls and boys, we need to include questions about access and use of tech alongside questions about health and education participation — and we need to track this over time to better understand if the gender digital divide amongst youth is widening or narrowing.

Second, we need to continue to champion efforts to include girls in digital initiatives. There are notable programs underway to ensure that girls are active participants in digital opportunities. As these expand, we need to also ensure that digital literacy is included in education in schools and vocational trainings.

Third, we need to actively address social barriers that limit girls’ access and engage gatekeepers in conversations about tech access. These conversations have the potential to normalize digital access for girls and boys alike.

As these issues are addressed, digital devices could become tools for empowerment and inclusion for girls as well as boys, and the incentives to use phones shared equally. Instead of being pulled away from digital technology and having to use a phone in secret, the 16-year-old girl could use her phone openly in ways that expand her future and allow her to fully participate in the digital world.

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About the author

  • Headshot kecia

    Kecia Bertermann

    Kecia Bertermann is Girl Effect’s director of digital research and learning. She specializes in exploring the intersection of digital technologies and behavior change, with a particular focus on combining data science with traditional research methods to improve products and services for adolescent girls.