UCL Global


International study reveals smartphone use around the world

17 May 2021

A team of anthropologists led by UCL Professor Daniel Miller studied smartphone use in nine countries across Africa, Asia, Europe and South America

Two girls in a coffee shop on their phones

A team of 11 anthropologists spent 16 months documenting smartphone use in nine countries across Africa, Asia, Europe and South America, with a particular focus on older adults.

Their analysis is published in The Global Smartphone: Beyond a youth technology, a new book by an international team of researchers led by Professor Daniel Miller (UCL Anthropology) whose previous project on social media, Why We Post, saw more than a million downloads of the open access books that detailed the findings.

This new research is the most in-depth study ever to look at how adults use smartphones reveals how we are ‘homeless’ when we lose them because they are where we increasingly express our personalities, interests and values. We adapt them to our needs and have swapped face to face time with family, friends and colleagues for hours spent ‘at home’ on our smartphones.

Professor Daniel Miller said: “Our unique study comprehensively reveals how people of all ages across the world, and in particular older people, are creatively adapting smartphones to work for them, and the social, economic, cultural, educational and health benefits this brings.

“We also show how the smartphone is no longer just a device that we use, it’s become the place where we live. The flip side of that for human relationships is that any point, whether over a meal, a meeting or other shared activity, a person we’re with can just disappear, having ‘gone home’ to their smartphone. 

“At the same time, the smartphone is helping us create and recreate a vast range of helpful behaviours, from re-establishing extended families to creating new spaces for healthcare and political debate. It is only by looking at the vastly different uses and contexts that we can fully understand the consequences of smartphones for people’s lives around the world.

“We hope that everyone, not least politicians and policy makers, will learn from The Global Smartphone, which is part of UCL’s Ageing with Smartphones initiative. We need everyone to build on the positives while urgently addressing the increasing discrimination and inequality that persist when people anywhere in the world are digitally excluded.”

Whether it is access to health information in Ireland and Chile, the use of mobile money in Cameroon and Uganda, visual communication in China and Japan, or the differing ways older people in Italy, Brazil and Al Quds/East Jerusalem use their smartphones, there is evidence that smartphones are far from devices that create homogeneity.

Findings and outputs from the project around the world include:

  • In Uganda, mobile money remittances enable people to send money home to older relatives living in rural areas, contradicting the notion that smartphones are causing younger generations to neglect people in their old age.
  • In Cameroon the smartphone is helping the middle class create a new public sphere for the discussion of politics.
  • In Chile and Italy, smartphones allow migrants to ‘be’ together with both people from their home country and where they live now, in the same `transportal home.’
  • In Ireland, smartphones have helped invigorate older people’s lives around a plethora of activities, as the average period of retirement has increased. 
  • Observations in Brazil have led to the creation of a 150-page manual of best practices for using WhatsApp for health.
  • While many people may have smartphones, in the Palestinian field site of Al Quds/East Jerusalem, there are many other ways in which a digital divide remains based on language, different accessibility and other factors.
  • In Japan, adding a visual component to digital communication has helped people to maintain social relations and care at a distance that is sensitive to local conversational etiquette/norms.
  • While in most countries older people struggle with smartphones that they see as a youth technology, in China many older people positively identify with smartphones in support of a national drive to help China leapfrog other advanced economies through embracing new technologies.

There is a growing appetite for in depth information on how we are taking control of our smartphones from policy makers and health and education bodies worldwide, as well as commercial interest.

The Global Smartphone: Beyond a youth technology is written by Professor Daniel Miller (UCL Anthropology), Laila Abed Rabho, Patrick Awondo, Maya de Vries, Marília Duque, Pauline Garvey, Laura Haapio-Kirk, Charlotte Hawkins, Alfonso Otaegui, Shireen Walton, and Xinyuan Wang.

It is accompanied by a series of books called Ageing with Smartphones, which includes Ageing with Smartphones in Ireland and Ageing with Smartphones in Urban Italy also published by UCL Press. All three are offered to download for free as an open access PDF, or to purchase in hardback or paperback here.

UCL’s Anthropologies of Smart Phones and Smart Ageing (ASSA) project is funded by the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme.

More information


Esther Vargas via Flickr

For the latest news about UCL’s international activity, partnerships and opportunities, subscribe to the bimonthly Global Update newsletter.