UNESCO sells its brand. Nokia buys.

Big tech wants more screen-time for children, but knows not to say so. So it hired a shill. UNESCO.

by Sasha Alyson
first published 18 May 2020; updated 23 August 2023

In Asia, I am alarmed at the explosive growth in mobile phone usage by toddlers. The phone is the modern pacifier. In the West, parents hear about the downsides of childhood screen time. Not so, in many developing regions. Parents may believe, in the words of one I spoke to, that “my daughter is getting a head start on her education.”

How widespread is cellphone use by young children in the global South? I searched on Google for:

mobile phone use “developing countries” by children

I did not find an answer to my question. The #2 Google result was this:

UNESCO study shows effectiveness of mobile phones in…
UNESCO has published a report explaining how mobile technology is used to … hundreds of thousands of people currently use mobile technology as a portal to text. … of mobile phones in promoting reading and literacy in developing countries … (one third of study participants) read stories to children from mobile phones; …

Click the link and you’ll see this headline, from UNESCO:

UNESCO study shows effectiveness of mobile phones in promoting reading and literacy in developing countries

In fact, the study showed nothing of the sort. Reading in the Mobile Era, largely written by Mark West, was funded by Nokia, then published under the UNESCO “brand.” (That is UNESCO’s term.) It did not show that mobile phones increased reading and literacy in these countries. It didn’t even collect the data to test this claim.(1)

The 3-month survey, in five African and two Asian countries, included only people who had chosen to use a digital book-reading app called WorldReader, and who then volunteered to take part in a readership survey. In short, it was a self-selected sample of a highly atypical population.

What did Nokia get for its money?

Under its “prestigious” brand name (their term, again), UNESCO announced what Nokia wanted the world to believe: Mobile phones spread literacy. Time magazine swallowed hook, line and sinker: “Cellphones Could Help Millions in Developing Countries Read…. mobile technology could help tackle illiteracy.”(2) So did the Guardian: “‘Mobile reading revolution’ takes off in developing world…. UNESCO study reports huge growth in adults and children reading books on phones in Africa and the Indian subcontinent.”(3) So did the BBC, and others.

UNESCO promoted the belief that mobile phones would increase childhood literacy, even though it didn’t study that, and has no data to support the claim. The cover of the report features a colorfully-dressed child, who appears to be about age 10 or 12, gazing at a mobile phone. You could be forgiven for assuming that the report is about children and reading:

Reading in the Mobile Era. UNESCO and its tech booster, Mark West, claimed to have shown that mobile phones promote literacy. They did not. Nokia paid for all this.

But fewer than 2% of the survey participants were age 15 or under; virtually none were under age 10. UNESCO reports that many parents read to their children from books on their mobile phone. That could be a positive development, but if it replaced reading from printed picture books which a child could also look at independently, mobile phones may have negative impacts. We simply don’t know enough to draw any conclusions.

Perhaps there was some resistance within UNESCO itself to this corporate pandering. Buried in another report the next year, the agency mentioned that “clear evidence is lacking of their [mobile phones’] impact on improving literacy skills.”(4) But if parents are browsing online, all they’ll find are the deceptive paid-in-full claim from UNESCO, or a news report in Time, the Guardian, or the BBC.

UNESCO’s headline reflected a combination of wishful thinking, an eye toward the corporate sponsor, and just enough data to provide cover: 62% say they read more, “now that they can read on their mobile phones,” 15% read less. How much were they reading? The report is careful not to say. However, that can be calculated from other data. The average respondent – in this unusually motivated group – now reads slightly under two-and-a-half minutes a day.(5)

A bad study….

The study was fundamentally flawed on many levels. In addition to being a self-selected, atypical pool, 68% of those surveyed had education beyond the high school level. Any change in their habits will tell us nothing about the literacy impact of mobile phones on the population at large, and certainly not on children.

The most positive findings were self-reported: 62% of users say they read more than before, and 90% plan to read even more, next year. But self-reported data is notoriously unreliable. We do not evaluate a society’s fitness based on how many people plan to exercise more next year.(6)

The study doesn’t look at the full impact of mobile phones; it doesn’t even recognize that such things matter. And it only measured reading that was done on the WorldReader app, not other reading. Perhaps many people now read less because after they got a mobile phone, easier and quicker pleasures were available. Or maybe not. UNESCO didn’t collect the information required to give us any insight on this topic.

UNESCO acknowledges this wasn’t a particularly good study, stating: “It may be that those who completed the survey had more favourable views about mobile reading than those who did not,” then explains that this was necessary if it was to work “with the resources and mode of data collection available for the study.” But it was UNESCO that decided to take the money and shill for Nokia.

…oozing bias from every pore

UNESCO has invited corporations to “Benefit from UNESCO’s role of a neutral and multi-stakeholder broker,” even as it auctions off that neutrality. Reading in the Mobile Era is strewn with terms, factoids, and photos which always skew toward pleasing the corporate sponsor, rather than offering an accurate picture.

It refers to the “revolution in reading,” a catchy phrase that was picked up by the media. It never mentions that this revolution consisted of less than 2.5 minutes a day of reading – by the most avid readers – and that it does not even know whether reading is overall up or down.

UNESCO misses no opportunity to imply — without ever actually lying — that cellphones increase reading amongst children. Of six larger photos inside the report, three seem to show children engaged with a mobile phone. Along with the misleading cover, that’s four out of seven photos that try to lead readers astray.

UNESCO states that the survey was “supported by qualitative interviews with numerous respondents.” There were 17 such interviews, never more than 4 in any one country. From a total population of nearly two billion people, it’s quite a stretch to call this “numerous.”

UNESCO states that mobile phones promote literacy. But literacy is the ability to read, not how much you read. The study does not look at all at literacy rates, nor at how mobile phones affect them. In the U.S., for which we do have some statistics, fewer adolescents read for pleasure than in pre-cellphone days, and greater numbers experience mental-health issues.

This is an advertising brochure for the mobile phone industry, not a literacy analysis.

A prestigious brand for sale

This boondoggle didn’t just fall into UNESCO’s lap. UNESCO eagerly seeks money from corporate partners. Here, explained on its U.N. website, is what they’ll get in return:

►Benefit from a strong image transfer by associating yourself with a reputable international brand and a prestigious UN agency;
►Benefit from UNESCO’s role of a neutral and multi-stakeholder broker….(7)

Nokia didn’t have to be asked twice. In 2010 UNESCO’s Director-General, Irina Bokova, signed an agreement with Nokia under which the mobile phone company would give five to ten million dollars to “promote the use of mobile technologies to further the objectives of Education For All.”(8)

Note the phrasing. This was not to investigate whether or how mobile technologies could improve education; but to promote those technologies.

Willful blindness

Mobile phones are spreading quickly; it would be wonderful if they truly did increase literacy. And obviously they have the potential to increase literacy, reading, and learning. The question is: What is their actual impact? Do the distractions and other downsides outweigh the benefits? Everyone from parents to policy-makers could make better decisions if we had a fuller picture. UNESCO’s industry-funded plug for the telecom industry simply clouds the issue.

My own observations suggest that the temptations offered by cellphones do hinder childhood literacy. Reading rewards effort. Video games and movies offer instant rewards. When they’re just a click away, they tend to win.

But personal hunches aren’t enough here. We need good data about mobile phone use in various age groups (starting with ages 3 and under), about amount of time used, what it’s used for, and the impacts, as far as known. It should be done by an unbiased organization looking to see what’s best for the populations affected. A U.N. agency should be a logical candidate for that job. Instead, UNESCO sells its credibility to corporate interests, which seek to set priorities in the South.(9)

Update: August 2023

Having previously seen UNESCO push to get mobile phones into schools, I was bemused to come across this statement on the UNESCO website in 2023:

“Smartphones in schools have also proven to be a distraction to learning, yet fewer than a quarter of countries ban their use in schools.”

This appears in a UNESCO-GEM report titled “Technology in Education: A Tool on Whose Terms?” GEM is the Global Education Monitoring Report, which defines itself as “an independent team hosted by UNESCO.” If you’re hosted by a bigger agency, your independence has some limits, but generally I’ve found GEM reports to be thoughtful, while UNESCO has become a propaganda department for the aid industry, big tech, and whoever else will feed it. There is no mention in this new GEM report that UNESCO itself has been a major and deceitful force for pushing mobile phone use in schools.

Comments from Twitter

We announced this story on Twitter, where readers made these comments. Please add your own comments at the bottom of this page.

OjDuro, @OJdurodol: The child on the cover is a typical poverty porn
[Sasha notes: Thanks for commenting. The photo was taken by an executive at Apple computer.]

KADD, @KADD83181319: I’ve an idea let’s try books!

FBPE, @cocobelladoodle: Reading fiction, rather than skim reading, helps children to develop emotional skills like empathy. Audio books and radio can offer equivalence but not skim reading on a mobile phone.

TechZone, @TechZoneRepairs: Depends what you read on your phone and whether or not you research stuff, read up on things, take interest in certain topics etc

Lynn Fern, @WalesFern: Mobile ‘phones & social media are responsible for a great reduction in literacy, & an equally great increase in mental laziness.

Matthew Elton Thomas, @MatAndEltTho: Mobile phones are the new cigarettes. Get them hooked young…..

Audrey MacLelland, @AudreyMacLella3: Nokia paid for the study??? Enough said!

Sherrie Romany Smith, @SherrieRomany: Phones def increase literacy, in my community it’s made a big difference. but I agree with all ur other points.

JM, @TJSM21: Actually I have a 21 yr old DS son who has a reception yr level of reading and texting and reading texts on his phone has improved his reading and spelling by a significant amount and its because he’s interested and wants to be part of social media

FBPE, @cocobelladoodle: It’s a different kind of reading tho. Skimming, rather than prolonged concentration, is the kind of reading that doesn’t support a developing attention span. Skimming is a skill that is learned later + is very valuable in certain professions. But we need attention based reading.

This is Scotland’s Star, @AwayFromTheKeys: I don’t know. I read far more now than I ever did because of my mobile. And the mobile network has allowed many developing countries to jump 100 years of telecom infrastructure.
[Sasha replies: I read more now, too. For those who have acquired reading skills and habits, it can certainly be a plus. But for children, for whom reading is still hard work, my experience is it offers too many distractions. But the big issue is: UNESCO is taking tech money — to deceive.]

Notes and Sources

1. Reading in the Mobile Era, by Mark West with Han Ei Chew, UNESCO, 2014.

2. Time magazine story

3. Guardian story

4. UNESCO admits that “clear evidence is lacking…” (page 150)

5. Average daily reading time: 3330 respondents were male with an average reading time per month of 33 minutes; 1000 were female with an average of 207 minutes. Total reading time of 316,890 minutes per month divided by 4330 readers, then divided by an average 30.4 days per month, gives an average of 2.41 minutes per month. This is not the increase in reading; it is the total amount.

6. Problems of self-reported data: In one province of Vanuatu, 85% of people over age 15 said they could read and write. On an actual test, only 27.6% could do so

7. UNESCO brand for sale

8. UNESCO signs a deal with Nokia

9. A particularly good account of how corporate interests shape U.N. policy is “Philanthrolateralism: Private Funding and Corporate Influence in the United Nations,” by Karolin Seitz and Jens Martens.

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