That picture of a 13 year old’s mobile home screen reminded me of a really interesting paper written by Sunila Lobo and Silvia Elaluf-Calderwood (who is a whizz about all things mobile) on how young female Saudis use their smartphones. The paper is available here, though, unfortunately, it is behind a paywall.
The research was conducted 4 or so years ago, which is a long period of time in terms of mobile technology development. However, as there is so little research on the habits of this interesting group of users, and given that habits change more slowly than gadgets, the findings are still very valuable.
Saudi Arabia is a very conservative nation with strict – and very restrictive – rules regarding participation of women in society. But it is also a nation with a very young population, with high disposable income and who have embraced mobile technology. So, Sunila and Silvia set out to study smartphone usage and attitudes among young Saudi women, and this is what they found.
In common with their Western counterparts, young Saudi women identified very strongly with their handsets, which, together with selected applications (e.g., camera), were key for the development of their digital personas. The devices were always on and easily accessible – including by the bedside or in the bathroom. Smartphones were a fundamental part of these young women daily routines, from organising their social lives, to entertainment or note taking (e.g., in classes). Again, messaging seemed to be more widely used than voice communication.
The authors reported the ubiquitous use of applications of a religious nature, such as access to texts from the Koran or alerts for daily prayer times, which is not so prevalent among young Western users of mobile technology. Another difference seemed to be in terms of brand preference: at the time of the study, Blackberry had a market penetration rate among this group 77% higher than in the US, overall.
According to this study, however, the main difference between young female Saudi consumers and their western counterparts was the attitude towards privacy. The young Saudi women that participated in this study were very comfortable with government surveillance. They deemed that the government had the right – or, indeed, the duty – to monitor mobile communications, alongside fixed phone communications or Internet browsing behaviour, for national security purposes. However, they objected to their mobile activity monitored by friends and family (as many young Western women would). The mobile was seen by these consumers as key to navigate the complex restrictions imposed on their domestic, work and social lives, and they valued being able to control who sees or knows what, among their relatives and peers.
So, while there is very little in common between the Western and the Saudi societies at a macro level, it seems that there are many similarities in terms of how young women use and relate to their mobile handsets. And while these two groups of consumers may be poles apart regarding how they view government surveillance, they share a desire to control their online presence and informational privacy.
What are your thoughts about this research?