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Southeast Asia’s Smartphone Scene: Perceptions and Patterns Unboxed

In today’s hyper-connected world, smartphones have become more than mere gadgets; they serve as digital extensions of ourselves. Southeast Asia, renowned for its rapid technological advancement, is no exception to this trend. But what are the smartphone habits of Southeast Asians? How do we perceive our digital companions, and what impact are smartphones having on us and our children?

Through our latest Blackbox-ADNA ASEANScan, we explored the smartphone landscape in six key ASEAN markets: Singapore, Malaysia, Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, and Indonesia. Our survey reached over 9,000 respondents, offering us a panoramic view of smartphone usage and the perceptions that surround it.

A Self-Reflection in the Black Mirror

When asked, “How do you feel about the amount of time you spend on your smartphone?”, the responses unveiled a spectrum of sentiments. Three in five (60%) Southeast Asians feel that they have their smartphone usage under control, while 29% acknowledged that it is manageable but requires monitoring. One in 10, however, admitted, “It’s out of control – I really should reduce it.”

Notably, the younger generation seems to be grappling the most with smartphone addiction, with 31% of those aged 15-24 feeling that their usage is spiralling. For comparison, not a single respondent aged over 35 felt the same way. This trend is particularly pronounced among young Filipinos (15-24 y.o.), with 41% expressing this concern, while young Singaporeans appeared to cope relatively better, with only 20% feeling their usage is out of control.

Smartphones: A Soothing Salve?

Delving into the emotional impact of prolonged smartphone use, we discovered that 20% of Southeast Asians reported feeling “calmer/relaxed,” whereas only 8% admitted to feeling anxious or stressed. Not the kind of results we were expecting, but it is also true that engaging in compulsive habits tends to pacify the habituated person – a possible sign of smartphone addiction? The majority (72%), however, appeared neutral, suggesting that most do not dwell on their emotions after smartphone use. Perhaps just use it and be done with it!

Interestingly, Malaysians stand out as they perceive smartphones as calming tools the most in Southeast Asia, with one-third (32%) feeling calmer or more relaxed after prolonged usage—much higher than the regional average. Our recent ‘Unmasking Mental Health in Southeast Asia’ study also showed that Malaysian youth consider digital addiction among the top two factors affecting their mental health so there’s something to think about there – are smartphones both an addiction and a coping mechanism?

Unearthing the Tipping Point: How Much is Too Much?

When asked, “How many hours a day do you consider as over-usage or too much time on a smartphone?, overall, about one in three Southeast Asians said six hours per day is the cut-off before it becomes excessive. Between countries, Malaysians agree wholeheartedly (56%) with the six-hour threshold, but the largest Singaporean proportion (32%) say eight hours is a more appropriate cut-off.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, between generations, the perceptions are more distinct. Millennials and Gen Zs can’t fathom using a phone for less than 6-8 hours per day, while on the other hand, Southeast Asia’s senior cohort (aged 50 and above) consider even a minute over two hours as a minute too much!  

Our Digital Companions: Friends or Foes?

Peering into the perceived benefits of smartphone ownership, we found that 36% of Southeast Asians prioritise social connectivity, with “keeping in touch with family and friends” chosen as one of their top two options from a list of 10. Following closely, 30% selected “convenience for everyday personal tasks” such as managing calendars and bills, while 26% valued smartphones for entertainment.

However, intriguing regional differences surfaced. Thais appear to prioritize family connections the most, with 62% choosing “keeping in touch with family and friends” as the biggest benefit of using a smartphone. In contrast, Singaporeans and Indonesians put a greater value on the greater convenience in performing personal tasks, with 50% and 55% respectively selecting this option.

Conversely, when evaluating the drawbacks of smartphone use, two in five respondents (40%) say that “not spending enough time with family and friends” is a top concern. This concern resonated across countries, with more than half (51%) of Filipinos concurring. These findings truly corroborate the fact that smartphones are a double-edged sword. They keep us connected to distant friends and family but also end up alienating us from our near and dear ones!

The issues of “phone addiction” and “loss of concentration” followed closely, each chosen by 30% of Southeast Asians. Intriguingly, “too much time on social media” emerges as the number one concern among 18-24-year-olds. This came to light too in our recent “Unmasking Mental Health in Southeast Asia” series, which highlighted the detrimental impact of social media usage particularly on the younger generation.

When is the Smartest Time for a Child to Own A Smartphone?

When contemplating child smartphone ownership, 62% of Southeast Asians believe that the appropriate starting age should be 15 years and above. Thai respondents (78%) hold the strictest view in this regard.

Considering the potential consequences of excessive smartphone use on children, one in five (21%) Southeast Asians point to a perceived negative impact on learning, while the same proportion (20%) express concerns about their negative effect on relations with other family members.

Moreover, the study identified other concerns, including reduced socialization time with other children (19%), compromised fitness and health (14%), changes in mood or temperament (11%), and a decline in reading ability (10%).

In response to statements related to child smartphone use, a resounding 90% of respondents agreed with “Children should not be allowed to go to bed with their smartphone.” Furthermore, more than four in five (81%) supported the idea that “parents should only allow a child to hold onto their smartphone at times of the parent’s choosing.”

Balancing Responsibility and Regulation: A Complex Dilemma

When considering the responsibilities of governments in protecting children from smartphone harms, Southeast Asians were divided practically down the middle, with 51% believing that top-down government policies are necessary to reduce child smartphone usage, while 49% oppose this idea. Similarly, opinions on social media companies’ roles in protecting children are evenly split, with 53% in favour of them doing more to protect children online, while 47% seem to think they are doing enough already.

Blackbox’s Take on the Way Ahead: No Easy Answers!

Our exploration of Southeast Asia’s smartphone habits and perceptions reveals complexity. While many feel in control, addiction is acknowledged. Emotional impacts vary, with Malaysians finding solace in smartphones.

Regional variations exist in defining over-usage, benefits, and drawbacks. Family connections and convenience are vital, but concerns about reduced quality time and social media overuse persist.

Child smartphone ownership remains contentious, with most preferring to delay until age 15+. Worries about learning and family relations abound. Parents shoulder responsibility, with divided opinions on government and social media involvement.

This study into Southeast Asia’s smartphone culture underscores the nuanced relationship people in the region have with these ubiquitous devices. It reflects the ongoing debate and challenges in managing smartphone usage, particularly among the younger generation, and highlights the need for continued dialogue and solutions to address these concerns in an ever-connected world. As technology evolves, so too will the conversation around its impact on our lives.

This is the first in an ongoing series around smartphone behaviours, patterns, and perceptions in Southeast Asia. Through this study, we hope to reach out to all stakeholders involved for building effective strategies to address the fine line between tech adoption and addiction.

Author: Blackbox Research Team


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