Welcome To The Shared Internet

Once upon a time, some claimed that the rise of mobiles and tablets would eventually sound the death knell for more “traditional” devices such as PCs and laptops. To date, the reality has been quite different: far from abandoning certain internet access points in favor of others, digital consumers have been quick to embrace a multi-device approach to using the Internet. Yes, the rise of smaller, portable devices has had a clear impact on how, when and where PCs and laptops are being used -- but we’re still turning to them at least some of the time.

Yet there’s one other myth surrounding mobile and tablet usage which is still being perpetuated today: that these devices are always much more personal than PCs and laptops, and hence that it’s easier to track -- and understand -- how an individual is behaving online.

Compared to other devices, it’s certainly less common to find mobile being shared among multiple users. But that nearly a quarter of those using the mobile internet say that at least one other person has regular use of their device is a major trend; very clearly, we simply cannot assume that one handset = just one user. What’s more, tablets are one of the devices most likely of all to be used by multiple people; only 44% of tablet users are not sharing them with others, making this device even less personal than PCs and laptops, as explored in GlobalWebIndex’s Q3 Device report.

Drilling down into the demographics helps to explain some of the reasons behind the trend. If we look only at the major breaks, there’s little significant variation to be seen. Older users are slightly less likely to share tablets, while lower income respondents are the most likely to share mobiles, but differences are hardly profound. Far more pronounced patterns emerge if we examine relationship and family status. Across both devices, it’s clear that this has a major impact: the more children someone has, the more likely they are to be sharing mobile devices and tablets. Similarly, those who are married or in relationships are bigger sharers than those who are single. Within households, tablets in particular are seen very much as shared rather than wholly personal devices.

Significantly, levels of sharing are also subject to variation by country. Here, it’s users in emerging Internet nations who are some of the most likely to share devices with others, particularly when it comes to mobiles. In part, this has been catalysed by the less important role that PCs and laptops have historically played as internet access points in these nations; many individuals in fast-growth markets have “leapfrogged” PCs/laptops to see mobiles become their major (or in cases, only) access point. That this makes these devices more susceptible to being shared is an inevitable consequence of this.

At a global level, the main implication here is that large audiences are going uncounted. For mobiles, for example, about 1 billion people across GWI’s 32 countries are currently using them to connect to the Internet. But of this group, about 750 million are the sole users of their device, while a further 250 million are sharing them with other users. If we work out a total audience size which includes all of these shared users, the potential size of the overall mobile audience rises by nearly 500 million people --  from about 1 billion to 1.5 billion. That’s a huge increase, and one that highlights the perils of linking mobile browsers to unique users. It also demonstrates why the potential reach and audience size of a Web site might be much bigger than often thought.  

In 2015, this is a trend with particular momentum. The era of the “smart” home means that games consoles and smart televisions are poised to become much more important internet devices -- and yet, they are the most likely devices of all to be shared among multiple users. In short, tracking Internet users is about to get more difficult still and, in turn, any lingering idea that one machine = one person will become even more anachronistic.

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