Why Spaniards are Europe’s WhatsApp champions

Social habits and the high cost of sending SMS messages are behind the adoption rate

Three youngsters connect to the internet with their smartphones.
Three youngsters connect to the internet with their smartphones.C. Bautista

Are Spaniards the most talkative people in Europe? If the number of instant messages they send each other via their cellphones is anything to go by, the answer is a definite yes.

While the use of messaging applications and high-speed mobile internet connections is on the rise throughout the European Union, the pace of change in Spain is unlike that anywhere else. According to a recent report produced by the CNMC market watchdog, Spaniards are Europe’s biggest users of messaging applications such as WhatsApp, which is present on 98 percent of smartphones in the country.

Spaniards like to communicate, which boosts the usage of this kind of app, technology experts explain. But that is not the main reason that explains the success of tools such as WhatsApp in Spain. The high cost of sending SMS messages when the technology was first introduced in the country also had an effect, pushing users to a low-cost alternative.

Spaniards like to communicate, which boosts the usage of this kind of app, technology experts explain

The data put together by the CNMC’s January report reveals that 51.5 percent of Spanish cellphone users send messages every day via so-called “over the top” apps – those that operators have no direct control over, such as WhatsApp. Meanwhile, 83 percent use such applications at least once a week. In comparison, just 67 percent of Dutch users, who come second in the ranking, do the same.

The report also identifies the “high level of social recommendation” of these apps as another cause of their popularity in Spain. “There are no sociological studies that scientifically explain why instant messaging is so ingrained in Spain,” the report reads. “In general it can be said that there is a tendency to trust in friends and family members who recommend a mobile or social networking application, the use of which is often a talking point. These are two factors that contribute to the fact that user numbers have risen very quickly.”

According to a 2014 report from Spanish telecoms giant Telefónica, instant messaging use grew 206 percent over the last two years in Spain to reach 78 percent of cellphone owners.

Not all WhatsApp users say they have a happy relationship with the instant messaging service

Gustavo Leitao Cardoso, a communication sociologist from the Lisbon University Institute, explains the key role that young users play in this trend. “These days they are interested in a simple application, such as WhatsApp, and not a social network that is dedicated to offering all kinds of services, as Facebook is,” he explains. “They want to communicate the way they want to, and with whom they want to, in a more closed manner. And they want to be able to say something specific, not to make their existence evident on the internet, as people do on Facebook – a place where, what’s more, parents are ever more present.”

The data from the CNMC backs up these theories, revealing that seven out of every 10 users aged between 16 and 34 have an internet connection on their phone, 10 points above the EU average.

But this rapid rise also has its negative side. Not all WhatsApp users say they have a happy relationship with the messaging service. Over recent years cases of addiction to WhatsApp have being going up, both in Spain and in other European countries. “There are clinical cases of compulsive use of WhatsApp, which leads to a lack of social skills, problems of concentration, and an inability to enjoy restorative sleep due to being constantly aware of cellphone alerts. There are cases where patients end up hearing sounds or vibrations from their cellphones that we define as phantom, given that they never existed,” explains José Antonio Molina, a psychologist and an expert in treating addictions. “The majority of these cases are found among young people, whose need to communicate and interact with others is generally stronger. Those who are older than 50 usually have a cooler relationship with this kind of application,” explains psychotherapist Miguel Pedano.

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