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Why Teen Girls And Boys Don't Have Equal Access To Mobile Phones

A girl talks on her mobile phone after coming out of class in New Delhi.
Burhaan Kinu
Getty Images
A girl talks on her mobile phone after coming out of class in New Delhi.

In the U.S., girls and boys are both big smartphone users.

That's not necessarily the case in the developing world, says a new report released this month by the nonprofit organization Girl Effect.

The "Real Girls, Real Lives, Connected"report surveyed more than 3,000 teenage girls and boys in 25 countries, with a focus on developing nations, including Nigeria, Bangladesh, India and Rwanda, through online questionnaires and in-person interviews.

The report found that for every 15 boys who own a phone, only 10 girls do; the difference is 18 vs. 10 for smartphone ownership.

In many parts of the world, parental restrictions and social norms, rather than cost or access, may be responsible for the disparity.

In Bangladesh, a 15-year-old girl told researchers: "People say that the girl who touches the phone is a bad girl." In Malawi, another teen girl noted: "If her parents find her with a mobile they would think she is a prostitute."

The research was funded by the Vodafone Foundation, the charitable arm of international service provider Vodafone, but the company did not interfere with the research, says Zoe Dibb, one of the lead authors.

For Dibb, the key finding was that "even though girls are less likely to have phones than boys, they have more access to mobiles phones than we thought," she says. "Even if they don't have a phone of their own, they may share one with a parent or sibling."

And even if their parents don't allow them to use phones, tenacious teen girls around the world devise workarounds.

For example, 15-year-old Riya in the northeastern state of Bihar, India — one of the girls interviewed for the report — confessed to secretly using her neighbor's phone in defiance of her parents. "I use the phone to check my Gmail, Instagram, WhatsApp and look for new dish recipes. Sometimes, we also look up new henna designs on YouTube," she told researchers. Although Riya's parents allowed her 13-year-old brother to use a phone, they worried that social media will expose her to harassment or "bad influences."

For girls who are caught illicitly using a phone, the consequences can be harsh: Girls reported scoldings and beatings. Some girls responded that parents threatened to pull them out of school.

Because girls often have limited access or face stigmas for using a phone, the report found that girls were less likely to understand how to protect themselves from online harassment and Internet scams.

These new findings echo previous research on girls and phone use, says Gina Porter, a professor of anthropology at Durham University in the U.K. who didn't contribute to the recent report but has been researching mobile phone use in sub-Saharan Africa for the past decade.

In her own studies, Porter found that attempts to deny girls access to phones are not only futile but can cause damage. In parts of South Africa, Porter's research found that it wasn't uncommon for men to offer phones to young women in exchange for a sexual relationship and promise access to phones in order to sexually coerce girls.

The Girl Effect report recommends that schools around the world include digital safety lessons in their curriculum, including information on how to block callers and online harassers. These lessons also "need to ensure that boys and men are accountable for their actions when using phones to interact with girls," the report says. Girl Effect also suggests that nonprofit organizations and government bodies work with teachers and parents to destigmatize phone use so that girls can openly access phones, and adults can better control and supervise their use.

Porter agrees with the approach. "Phones have made a massive difference in young people's lives," she says. It's common for young people in parts of rural South Africa, for example, to use their phones to ask for and receive school fees from wealthier relatives who live in cities.

"Earlier, a student wondering why her uncle hasn't paid [school] fees would have to travel all the way to the city to find him, get the money and physically carry it back — and that journey can be not only expensive but also dangerous," Porter says. She's also seen girls and boys use phones to set up and manage small businesses or seek and secure job opportunities in other cities.

And there's a greater benefit to be had. Through phones, a 19-year-old Indian girl told the researchers, "We can connect globally .... We can know about things that are unknown to us."

Maanvi Singh is a freelance writer and a regular contributor to NPR. Contact her @maanvisings

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Corrected: October 23, 2018 at 11:00 PM CDT
A previous version of this story misspelled the last name of Zoe Dibb as Dibbs.