Digital: Global Overview

The world has changed dramatically over the first three months of 2020, with the COVID-19 pandemic impacting almost every aspect of our lives. These changes have been clearly evident in the world’s digital behaviours too, especially as billions of people turn to connected devices to help them cope with life and work under lockdown.

We’ve dedicated a significant portion of our Digital 2020 April Global Statshot Report to exploring these extraordinary trends. Key headlines in this quarter’s report include:

  • Big jumps in digital activity, especially in countries that have seen the strictest lockdowns;
  • Significant increases in social media use, with video calling taking centre stage;
  • Accelerating adoption of ecommerce, particularly for grocery shopping;
  • An increase in the amount of time spent playing video games and watching esports;
  • Some unexpected opportunities for digital advertisers.

You’ll find my comprehensive analysis of all these stories and more in the article below, but be warned: at roughly 7,000 words, it’s a bit of a monster, so you may want to grab a coffee and get comfortable before digging in.

Just before we begin, our teams at We Are Social, Hootsuite and Kepios would like to extend a very special thank you to all of the partners who made this report possible, especially under the challenging circumstances.

Key headlines: global digital adoption still growing

The latest data show that the number of internet users and social media users around the world have both increased by more than 300 million over the past twelve months, despite delays in reporting in some key countries due to the coronavirus outbreak. 

DataReportal analysis indicates that 4.57 billion people now use the internet, an increase of more than 7 percent since this time last year. Social media users are growing even faster, up by more than 8 percent since April 2019 to reach 3.81 billion today. 

Global social media use hasn’t quite reached the 50 percent penetration mark yet, but the latest trends suggest that we should pass this key milestone before the end of 2020.

The number of people using mobile phones has also increased, with global user numbers up by 128 million over the past twelve months. GSMA Intelligence reported 5.16 billion unique mobile users at the start of April 2020, meaning that roughly two-thirds of the world’s total population uses a mobile phone today.

Use of connected devices jumps

Detailed research from GlobalWebIndex reveals that people all over the world have been spending considerably more time on their digital devices as a result of coronavirus lockdowns.

More than three-quarters (76 percent) of internet users aged between 16 and 64 in surveyed countries say they’ve been spending more time using their smartphones in recent weeks compared to their pre-lockdown behaviours, with almost 4 in 5 women reporting an increase in mobile use.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, people report that they’ve been spending longer watching television too, with more than a third (34 percent) of internet users across the 17 countries in GlobalWebIndex’s special coronavirus study saying that they’ve been spending more time using smart TVs and dedicated streaming devices such as Apple TV and Amazon’s Fire Stick.

Other data supports this finding too, with American network AT&T reporting that Netflix traffic has reached all-time highs during the US coronavirus lockdown. 

More people have been signing up for streaming services too, with Disney Plus in particular posting impressive growth during the first three months of 2020. The platform’s recent launch in Europe and India has helped to boost subscribers to more than 50 million in just five months since its launch, while the platform has almost doubled its subscriber base since the start of 2020.

Netflix has also seen its user base grow since the start of the year. The company announced that it attracted 16 million new paying subscribers to its service in the first three months of 2020, equating to quarter-on-quarter growth of 9 percent.

COVID-19 lockdowns have a profound impact on digital habits

Beyond increases in device usage, GlobalWebIndex’s data reveals that people’s digital behaviours are also changing dramatically as a result of coronavirus-related lockdowns. We’ll cover many of the individual changes in detail throughout the rest of this article, but the chart below contains the headline numbers.

Many people say that they expect their new habits to continue after the COVID-19 outbreak passes too. One in five internet users say they expect to continue watching more content on streaming services, and one in seven (15 percent) say they expect to continue spending more time using social media.

However, it’s worth remembering that some of these ‘new habits’ are purely the result of a sudden increase in spare time, and there’s a good chance that activity levels will quickly return to pre-lockdown levels once people are able to return to work, and are once again able to socialise with friends and family in the physical world.

Use of social media surges

One of the clearest trends in recent weeks has been a dramatic increase in socialising via digital platforms, whether that’s with family, friends, or colleagues and commercial partners. 

This isn’t surprising of course; with so many people struggling with social isolation measures or a complete lockdown, digital platforms are increasingly our only opportunity to communicate with the outside world.

Almost half of internet users (47 percent) in surveyed countries say they’ve been spending longer using social media, while roughly half of these users (23 percent) say they’ve been spending “significantly” more time using social media compared to their pre-lockdown behaviours.

Increased usage has been most pronounced across younger age groups, but a third of internet users aged 45 to 64 also told GlobalWebIndex that they’re spending more time using social media as a result of coronavirus lockdowns.

Women are more likely to have increased their social media activities compared to men, with almost two-thirds of women aged 16 to 24 saying they’re spending more time using social media in recent weeks.

Despite already spending more time on social media than any other country, the Philippines has seen the greatest number of people reporting an increase in the amount of time they’re spending on social platforms. 

Almost two-thirds (64 percent) of the Filipinos in GlobalWebIndex’s survey said their ‘social time’ has increased, compared to a global average of 47 percent. More than half of respondents in Brazil, India, and South Africa also report increases in social media activity, compared to less than one-quarter of respondents in Japan, and 26 percent in Germany.

Social media apps already accounted for half of the time that we spent on our mobile phones in 2019, but these ‘old favourites’ have seen considerable increases in use over recent weeks. 

In a press call with journalists as early as 18 March, Mark Zuckerberg announced that Facebook had already witnessed twice the usual level of calls made via WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger in the days since European countries began their lockdowns.

Meanwhile, some countries have seen even greater jumps in use. In Italy – one of the first Western countries to experience a complete lockdown – the number of group calls on Facebook Messenger involving three or more users increased by more than 1,000 percent in March alone, while people across the country have also increased the time they spend using Facebook-owned apps by more than 70 percent since the lockdown began.

App Annie also reports that the amount of time people spend using Snapchat and TikTok has grown considerably over recent weeks, while Reddit has also reported increases of 20-50% in traffic to subreddits related to business, finance, news, education, travel, and sports. 

Social media platforms see solid growth in active users

In addition to these increases in time spent, the latest data suggest that all of the key social platforms that we track in our ongoing Global Digital Reports grew their active user bases over the first three months of 2020 as well.

Twitter saw the biggest quarterly jump amongst these platforms. Numbers published in the company’s self-service advertising tools show that advertisers can now reach 47 million more people on Twitter compared to January 2020, equating to a quarter-on-quarter increase of 14 percent.

Interestingly, Russia accounted for roughly 30 percent of Twitter’s global growth this quarter. The company’s data show that the number of people in the country that advertisers can reach using Twitter ads increased by 149 percent over the past three months, from 9.5 million in January 2020, to more than 23.5 million by the start of April.

Facebook’s advertising audience also grew in the first three months of 2020, and is up by almost 4 percent since January (more on this below). Instagram’s audience is growing even faster, registering an uplift of 4.5 percent since the start of the year, while Snapchat’s tools indicate that the platforms’ advertising audience grew by 4.2 percent during the same period.

Sadly, TikTok remains tight-lipped on active user numbers, so we’re unable to provide any new insights that would enable us to compare the platform’s growth directly to other platforms. However, the latest data from App Annie show that TikTok still trails Instagram when it comes to monthly active users of each platform’s mobile app.

Digital in 2017

Today marks a momentous milestone for all things digital, with the new Digital Overview report revealing that more than half of the world’s population now uses the internet.

Our findings have exciting implications for businesses, governments, and society in general, but they’re also testament to the speed with which digital connectivity is changing the lives of people all over the world.

It’s only been 25 years since Tim Berners-Lee made the ‘World Wide Web’ available to the public, but in that time, the internet has already become an integral part of everyday life for most of the world’s population.

It’s not just the internet that’s growing rapidly, either; we’ve identified a wealth of other important milestones as part of this year’s Global Digital report, including:

  • More than half the world now uses a smartphone;
  • Almost two-thirds of the world’s population now has a mobile phone;
  • More than half of the world’s web traffic now comes from mobile phones;
  • More than half of all mobile connections around the world are now ‘broadband’;
  • More than one in five of the world’s population shopped online in the past 30 days.

You’ll find all sorts of valuable information in the suite of Global Digital reports we'll be publishing in partnership with Hootsuite over the next few days, including:

  • Digital in 2017: our main report, with more than 750 slides of valuable stats and trends;
  • 2017 Digital Yearbook: headline stats and key data for more than 230 countries around the world;
  • Digital in Africa 2017: regional and national data for every country in the region;
  • Digital in The Americas 2017: regional and national data for every country in North, Central and South America;
  • Digital in Asia-Pacific 2017: regional and national data for every country across Asia, Oceania, The Pacific and West Asia;
  • Digital in Europe 2017: regional and national data for every country in the Wester, Central and Eastern Europe, as well as Russia and Turkey;
  • Digital in The Middle East 2017: regional and national data for every country in the region.

The good news is that you don't need to wait to discover many of the highlights from this year's reports though; simply read on below for the key stats, together with our analysis of what all these numbers mean for businesses and organisations in 2017.

Just before we dig into the numbers though, we’d like to thank all of the organisations who provided the data to make this year’s report possible, especially:

  • GlobalWebIndex, who have shared a wealth of valuable data and insights across all elements of this year’s report;
  • GSMA Intelligence, who provided rich data on mobile connectivity for every country in the world, as well as the great insights from their Mobile Connectivity Index;
  • Statista, who have provided rich e-commerce data from their Digital Market Outlook product;
  • Akamai, who kindly shared fixed and mobile internet connectivity speed information for every country in the world, taken from their excellent State of the Internet report;
  • Google, for making their enormously valuable Consumer Barometer dataset available to the public;
  • StatCounter, who provide excellent data on the share of web traffic for different devices;
  • Ericsson, for publishing their ever-insightful Mobility Reports.

But what did all their data tell us? Let’s get stuck in...

Global Overview

The digital world experienced spectacular growth in 2016, with the pace of change accelerating across almost all key indicators versus 2015.

The headline numbers are:

  • 3.77 billion global internet users in 2017, equaling 50% penetration;
  • 2.80 billion global social media users in 2017, equaling 37% penetration;
  • 4.92 billion global mobile users in 2017, equaling 66% penetration;
  • 2.56 billion global mobile social media users in 2017, equaling 34% penetration;
  • 1.61 billion global e-commerce users in 2017, equaling 22% penetration;

The pace of change was a key story in last year’s Digital in 2016 report too, but considering that global internet penetration has now surpassed 50%, we were surprised by how much the rate of change continued to accelerate over the past 12 months:

  • Internet users grew by 10% in 2016, up 354 million compared to 2015;
  • Active social media users increased by 21%, up 482 million versus 2015;
  • Unique mobile users grew by 5%, up 222 million over the past 12 months;
  • Mobile social media users grew by 30%, up an impressive 581 million in 2016.

Internet users grew by slightly more than they did in 2015, while social media and mobile social media users were up by more than double the number of new users we reported last year. The rate of growth for unique mobile users increased by more than half compared to last year, with 81 million more new users in 2016 compared to the growth we reported in last year’s analysis.

We’ve also been able to report social media user numbers for both Syria and Sudan this year, which were our only two social media 'gaps' in last year’s 2016 Digital Yearbook. We'll be sharing the numbers for these two countries - together with updated user numbers for Cuba and Iran, as well as more than 230 other countries - when we publish our 2017 Digital Yearbook in the next few days. 

It’s also interesting to note that developed economies’ share of global digital users dropped this year, as digital growth in Asia-Pacific - particularly in South and Southeast Asia - moved the balance further East.

APAC is now home to more than half the world’s internet users, 54% of the world’s social media users, and 56% of all mobile social media users. Once again though, it’s the pace of change that tells the most interesting story here: Asia-Pacific accounted for 70% of total growth in global internet users, 62% of the growth in social media users, and 64% of the growth in mobile social media users. The pace of change in APAC show no signs of slowing either, and we’re confident that 2017 will be another bumper year for growth across the Far East, especially in Southeast Asia.

Regional Overviews

Digital in Africa grew only slightly in 2017, although the internet user data we’re reporting this year reflects some significant source corrections versus our 2016 report. In particular, the number of internet users reported by official sources for Egypt, Malawi, and Eritrea have all been revised down considerably, which has the effect of negating many of the gains posted by other nations.

However, 7 of the 10 fastest growing internet populations in the world are in Africa, with the number of users reported in Ethiopia more than tripling versus the numbers we reported last year. Fewer than one in three people across Africa has access to the internet today though, and current growth trends suggest we’ll be well into the 2020s before we see internet penetration levels across the continent pass the 50% mark.

On a more encouraging note, though, mobile social media use in Africa increased by nearly 50% in 2016, although at just 12% penetration across the region, there’s still plenty more room to grow.

Digital in 2016

We’re very excited to share our huge new Digital in 2016 report: Comprehensive study of digital, social and mobile usage around the world.

Last year’s global report has already been read almost 2 million times on SlideShare, but we’ve also had many requests for information on other countries, so this year we’ve decided to produce a report in three distinct parts:

1. Digital in 2016: the main report, which you can read in the SlideShare embed above (or on SlideShare by clicking here), containing all the digital data, social stats and mobile numbers you need to understand the state of digital around the globe, as well as in-depth studies of 30 of the world’s key economies.

2. 2016 Digital Yearbook: an additional document which contains headline digital, social and mobile data and statistics for 232 countries around the world. You can read and download this report for free too – you’ll find it as another SlideShare embed further down in this post, but you can also find it on SlideShare by clicking here.

3. The Executive Summary: this blog post, which presents our analysis of the key trends and context behind the numbers in this year’s report, as well as our forecasts and predictions for the coming twelve months. You can also download the Executive Summary in PDF form by clicking here.

So what does this year’s report reveal? Read on to dig into the details in our Executive Summary, and to get the links to download this year's two huge reports for free.

The Headlines

We’ve reported impressive growth in most things digital every time that we’ve published this report, but this year we’re seeing even faster growth – a somewhat surprising result considering that global internet penetration is already approaching 50%.

The key statistics for digital, social, and mobile media in 2016 are:

  • 3.42 billion internet users, equaling 46% global penetration;
  • 2.31 billion social media users, delivering 31% global penetration;
  • 3.79 billion unique mobile users, representing 51% global penetration;
  • 1.97 billion mobile social media users, equating to 27% global penetration.

As we mentioned above, it’s the pace of change that really caught our eye this year. It’s worth noting that the jump in internet users may be partly the result of improved reporting, rather than representing absolute growth in user numbers. We’ve also managed to obtain reliable numbers for social media in countries where previously we had no data, but the overall growth story is still highly compelling despite these caveats.

So, just how fast have the numbers been growing since our 2015 global report last January?

  • The number of reported internet users is up by 10%, growing by 332 million;
  • The number of reported social media is up by 10%, an increase of 219 million;
  • Unique mobile users increased by 4% thanks to 141 million new users;
  • Mobile social media users leapt 17%, adding 283 million new users.

We’ve focused on that last data point – i.e. the growth in mobile social users – as the key theme in our reports for the past two years, and it seems clear that it’s the stand-out number again in this year’s report too. However, the story this year is slightly different, and perhaps more significant, as we’ll see a bit later in this document (see the Mobile Social section).

There have been a few drops in the numbers too, though; a number of individual countries have registered lower mobile connections, possibly because of device and connection consolidation as people upgrade to data-connected smartphones that allow them to use mobile messaging, thus freeing them from the need to operate multiple mobile subscriptions in order to benefit from cheaper intra-network calls and SMSs.

A few countries have also registered falls in Facebook usage, especially in Africa. Notable drops include the Central African Republic, where Facebook monthly active users are down 30% year-on-year, Western Sahara (down 24%), and Zimbabwe (down 16%). Outside of Africa, Monaco’s active Facebook user base is down 15%, whilst Serbia lost 10% of its Facebook audience since last year’s report.

Internet Use

We’ve spent a lot of time over the past few years looking for reliable internet user data, but we still haven't found a single source of free data that meets all our expectations in terms of accuracy and recency. As a result, we’ve opted to ‘manually select’ data from across our more trusted sources for this year’s headline internet user figure, but we’ve also included three different estimates for the 30 countries we feature in the main report, to allow you to make your own informed choices.

It’s also worth noting that some countries still report lower internet user figures than social media user figures (see Note 1 at the end of this document for more context on this). In some instances, notably for countries where no internet user figures are available, we’ve opted to use active Facebook account numbers as a reliable proxy for internet users, but for those countries in our Key 30 Economies (as featured in our Digital in 2016 report) where we make more than one source of internet user data available, we've opted to leave the lower internet numbers as-is, to allow you to make your own choice as to which numbers are most reliable and representative.

The changes to our data sources for these headline figures may be one of the reasons why the number of internet users has gone up so much this year, but we’ve also noticed that our two main data providers – InternetWorldStats and the ITU – have both made significant updates to their databases in the past 12 months, resulting in much more recent data, which we believe is the main driver behind this.

As we see every year, the evolution of internet use is not evenly distributed around the world. The pace of change is greatest in the Middle East, where the number of reported internet users grew a whopping 17%, up more than 21 million users in just twelve months.

Meanwhile, perhaps unsurprisingly, APAC registered the largest absolute growth in internet user numbers – up nearly 200 million users – which translates to an impressive 12% year-on-year growth. At that pace, APAC saw half a million people use the internet for the first time every single day in the past twelve months – that’s six new users every second.

In terms of individual country rankings, Iceland comes in first place for countries with populations of 50,000 people or more, registering 98% penetration. Bermuda and Norway are close behind, with 97% and 96% penetration respectively.

At the other end of the scale, North Korea suffers from the lowest internet penetration worldwide, with barely 7,000 people reported to be able to access the internet. However, given that there is no internet service provider in North Korea, our understanding is that this internet user figure is derived from the number of Facebook users accessing the platform from North Korea, almost all of whom will be foreign nationals accessing via mobile devices.

Many countries in Africa still suffer from woeful internet access rates too, with Niger and Chad coming in second- and third-to-last places with just 2% and 2.5% penetration respectively.

Amongst our ‘Key 30’ economies (i.e. those featured in-depth in our Digital in 2016 report), the United Arab Emirates comes in top at 96%, followed by the United Kingdom (92%) and Canada (91%). India and Indonesia sit at the lower end of the scale with 28% and 34% internet penetration respectively, but they’re the only 2 countries in the Key 30 that fall below the global average of 46%.

Digital, Social and Mobile in 2015 

2014 was a landmark year for growth across all things digital, and We Are Social's new Digital, Social and Mobile in 2015 report indicates that this year will see even more impressive numbers.

Including stats for more than 240 countries around the world, and profiling 30 of the world's biggest economies in detail, this report is the most comprehensive, free compendium of up-to-date digital statistics and data you'll find.

So what do its 376 pages reveal?

The Headlines

As we've seen in our on-going series of Digital Statshot reports, mobile increasingly dominates the digital world, and we're confident that 'ubiquitous connectivity' will gather even more pace during 2015, as cheaper handsets and more affordable data connections reach further around the world.

What's more, with mobile-oriented services like WhatsApp, WeChat and Facebook Messenger achieving the top social media ranking spots in some of the world's biggest economies, it's clear that much of our digital behaviour is now converging around mobile devices.

Based on the trends within this data, we expect that mobile will help to push internet penetration beyond 50% of the world's population during mid to late 2016.

Before that, though, we expect to see social media penetration reach one-third of the world's population - likely by the end of 2015 - with new users in developing nations accounting for almost all of this growth.

In Context: 12 Months of Amazing Growth
The digital world passed some impressive milestones in 2014:

  • Worldwide social media users exceeded 2 billion back in August;
  • Worldwide penetration of mobile phones passed 50% in September;
  • The number of global internet users passed 3 billion in early November;
  • The number of active mobile connections surpassed the total world population just last month;

Excitingly, the numbers in our new 2015 report suggest that this growth shows no signs of slowing anytime soon:

You'll find an amazing wealth of data and infographics designed for easy copy-paste into your own presentations in the SlideShare embed above, but read on for our additional insights into the numbers.


Almost 42% of the world’s population has access to the internet in January 2015, representing a significant jump in reported numbers since last year’s report, when the same figure was just 35%:

Our analysis of these numbers suggests that much of this increase is due to more accurate and timely reporting of data rather than a sudden surge in access, but there is little doubt that many millions of new users accessed the internet for the first time in the past 12 months - many of them via mobile phones.

As we reported in early November, more than 3 billion people around the world now use the internet via a variety of different devices. However, access is not evenly distributed: the reported number of internet users in Bermuda, Bahrain and Iceland almost equals those countries’ total reported populations, but the data also suggest that fewer than 0.1% of the populations of North Korea and South Sudan have access to the internet.

Internet connection speeds vary significantly around the world too, from an average of more than 25 Mbps in South Korea, to barely 2 Mbps in India. Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore and the USA make up the top 5 fastest nations after South Korea, with each registering speeds in excess of 10 Mbps, putting them well above the global average of 4.5 Mbps:

The average internet user spends around 4 hours and 25 minutes using the net each day, with Southeast Asians registering the highest average daily use. Research conducted by GlobalWebIndex shows that Filipino internet users spend more than 6 hours per day using the net, with Thais, Vietnamese, Indonesians and Malaysians also all averaging more than 5 hours of use per day:

Was this helpful?

Thanks for your feedback!

Related Blog Posts