How Focus Groups Shaped Our Investigation of Technology and the Internet in Emerging Countries

A difficult part of designing opinion polls in countries with different cultures and languages ​​is making sure that we understand what people think about the topic we are studying, in their own words. So when we started our recent study on cell phone and social media use in 11 emerging economies, we started by organizing focus groups with various participants in four of the countries studied: Kenya, Mexico, Philippines and Tunisia.

The groups included smartphone users of different ages and education levels, as well as people with basic phones. Unlike some focus groups that aim to understand how to persuade people to like a political product or candidate, our groups were exploratory and shaped by broad questions about the social impact of mobile technology and the internet.

Given the open nature of the conversations, one of the most striking elements of the focus groups was the level of consistency exhibited by participants both within and between countries. Regardless of their age or direct experience with technology, groups often came up with similar lists of positive and negative changes brought about by cellphones and an increasingly digital environment.

The content of these focus groups was extensive and touched on a number of issues. But four themes emerged from these discussions and were ultimately incorporated into our survey as a result. Below each of these themes is paired with quotes taken directly from the focus groups that highlight how people view the use of technology.

People often see technology helping – but sometimes hurting – their interpersonal relationships. Those with whom we spoke in the focus groups saw cell phones affecting their interpersonal relationships in both positive and negative ways. We’ve heard time and time again that being able to stay in touch with people who live far away is a key benefit of mobile phones and social media. This was especially true in groups in which participants lived far from home or had relatives who lived abroad. But people also expressed concerns that technology is hastening the demise of face-to-face communication, or noted what they saw as the superficiality of talking online to “friends” who aren’t. friends in real life.

“Because most of the time we talk on the phone, it has reduced the rate of physical contact. You can be in the same house but you haven’t seen each other all day and you can just communicate by phone. Someone is in the bedroom, the other in the living room, and you just text them, you don’t have to see them. –Man, 26, Kenya

“In general, communication is much more efficient. You are more interconnected, being with your loved ones or with the affairs of the world. –Man, 26, Mexico

“Before, we communicated with people through telegrams, long distance phone calls. But now we use Skype and social networking sites to interact and connect anywhere in real time. … Cell phones are considered essential for communication, maintaining good relationships and keeping relatives or loved ones away from home. –Female, 54 years old, Philippines

“Everyone uses their own phone; people don’t interact or talk together in the same house, so the bonds are more fragile. –Man, 23 years old, Tunisia

Based on these and other comments, we added questions to the survey designed to assess people’s attitudes towards the impact of cellphones on direct and interpersonal communication, as well as on relationships with people who are involved. live far away. The results of the survey showed a similar tension in the 11 countries analyzed: cell phone users almost universally say that their phones help them stay in touch with those who live far away, even though the majority of adults in all countries say that people should be very or somewhat concerned about losing the ability to communicate face to face due to mobile phone use.

The impact of technology on children is a major concern for parents and non-parents. Parents in our focus groups also expressed concern at length that technology is negatively affecting their relationships with their children. But these concerns were not limited to parents: non-parents have also expressed concerns about the impact of screens on children in their country and the broader societal problems that could arise from the fact that children are exposed to harms. things that may not suit them.

After hearing these concerns in focus groups, we added several questions to the survey on the impact of phones on children. And the survey results indicate that concerns about children raised in focus groups are common in each of the 11 emerging economies studied.

“Young people use the phone too much. It may disturb them, it may prevent them from studying so that they do not focus on their studies. … There are also bad things on the Internet. There is a lot of danger, a lot of dangerous things there. »- Female, 51 years old, Tunisia

“Sometimes when I come home I just place [my smartphone] on the table, and I see that my son has just fallen on it, picked up the phone and went straight to the bedroom so he could play. By the time I realize it, it’s been almost two hours.
–Man, 44, Kenya

“Young children see things they are not yet supposed to see.” –Female, 26 years old, Philippines

“There is child addiction and laziness, and electronic games on the phone mean children lack concentration in class. »- Female, 45 years old, Tunisia

Technology affects the most intimate relationships of people.The impact of technology on romantic relationships was not a topic we initially intended to question in the survey. But in focus groups, we heard repeatedly about how people track their partners’ online and mobile activity. Some were not ashamed of their own online surveillance and stressed the importance of keeping tabs on their partners. Others have pointed out the ways in which these behaviors can lead to jealousy or friction in relationships. We included a question on this topic in the survey and found that in the 11 countries surveyed, a median of 26% of those whose partner or spouse uses a mobile phone actually monitored what that partner is doing on their phone. telephone.

“Most of the women you find on ChitChat who have pseudonymous accounts are actually married. They have children. – Female, 25 years old, Kenyan

“[My partner] controls my messages and calls, and he logs into my Facebook account with his cell phone because he has my password. … I feel like I can’t do anything. I feel tracked, watched. –Female, 25, Mexico

“If you have a crush, you don’t have to leave his house. “
“You can hunt down the pictures.” –Female, 27, and Male, 22, Philippines

“You can have more than one relationship at the same time, and therefore be confused [about] who to choose, be it love or friendship. … In addition, some couples divorce because of their activities on Facebook. –Man, 23 years old, Tunisia

Concepts like “fake news” and disinformation resonate in all cultures. We had always intended to ask respondents about social media news – particularly, whether that news is easily accessible, up-to-date, and tailored to users’ personal interests. But in the focus groups, we were struck by the amount of “fake news” as a concept that emerged during the sessions. Indeed, even if the majority of the discussion groups were held in a foreign language, the expression “fake news” was sometimes mentioned in English.

For some, concerns about fake news centered on not knowing who is broadcasting particular information and finding it difficult to verify. Participants in the Philippines, for example, mentioned reading on social media that cell phones cause radiation poisoning. Others worried that they would be actively misled by social media posts and not be able to find out what was really going on until the stories they encountered on social media were reported in the news of the evening. Still other discussions have revolved around the related concept that social media fuels animosity between political parties (in the Philippines and Mexico) or among tribes (in Kenya).

“Cell phones have done a lot, for both good and bad. In a good way, they brought more information to citizens. You can access information in a good way, but the kind of information you are accessing now has caused tribal conflict because there is a lot of information that you cannot verify. – Male, 24, Kenya

“Facebook gives you more fake news posted by citizens. When the earthquake happened, you had to look at the information to confirm. For me, current events are the closest thing to reality. Maybe you find some lies on Facebook. –Female, 34 years old, Mexico

“Yes there was [fake news about politics], as when there was a post that showed a large house, a palace, and said to be from Duterte. It wasn’t his, however. … You can’t really say what’s true and what isn’t these days. –Female, 29 years old, Philippines

“On Facebook, there are a lot of rumors and fake news. You shouldn’t trust them 100%. –Man, 23 years old, Tunisia

Based on these conversations, we added a series of questions to the survey designed to capture people’s trust in different news sources, as well as the extent to which they think social media and other technologies promote. disinformation or political divisions. The results of these questions will be published in a Pew Research Center report later this year.

Laura Silver is a senior researcher specializing in global research at the Pew Research Center.

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