On International Day of the Girl 2018, Girl Effect and Vodafone Foundation released Real girls, real lives, connected, the world’s first comprehensive global study into adolescent girls access and usage of mobile phones.

The study heard the voices of more than 3,000 girls and boys across 25 countries. It shows that while there are huge opportunities for mobile to help improve lives around the world, access is far from universal and, once again, girls are being left behind.

Girls have less access to mobile than boys, and the access they do have is more complicated than previously thought, often reinforcing the very same gender norms that hold them back.

Where sons might be getting hold of a mobile phone as a matter of course – accessing and using it independently – daughters are having to seek permission, borrow, or have their activity monitored.

These negative social norms are increasingly leaving girls with a digital literacy skills gap that puts them at risk.

By following these eight recommendations, NGOs, governments, development and tech players can best use mobile to meet the needs of adolescent girls:

1. Forget your assumptions: access to mobile is changing and we need to keep up. Instead of limiting discussions to ownership, we need to ask when and how girls gain access to mobiles. We also need to recognise that access to phones is often fluid, and related to complicated socio-economic factors.

2. Address physical and social barriers to improve girls’ access to mobile. Mobile phones don’t exist in isolation from the societies in which they are used. The wide range of social and physical barriers to mobile that girls often experience need to be tackled holistically through digital and non-digital means.

3. Rewrite literacy for the digital age. Tech literacy is a crucial component of all education and girls risk falling behind if we don’t support this. Support should include integrating tech literacy and digital safety into lessons at school for all students, as well as encouraging broader acceptance of mobile phones among families and communities.

4. Design for online safety. Girls want safer online experiences. When designing platforms special considerations should be made for users who borrow phones. We need to design an experience that is just as safe for a girl who has intermittent access to different phones, as one who has a phone of her own.

5. Design mobile platforms from the users’ perspective. From a girl’s perspective a phone is for communication, entertainment and sometimes information, but not necessarily for specific learning outcomes or behaviour change. We need to meet her where she is, at her level and type of phone use.

6. Involve men and boys. Men and boys often have more access to phones than girls and women, and can act as gatekeepers to access. We need to support gatekeepers to challenge stigma and taboos around mobile phones and show how they can improve girls’ lives in practical ways.

7. Support girls to expand their own digital horizons. Girls are better placed than anybody else to design relevant and valuable solutions for their own lives. We need to increase girls’ tech literacy, from daily use of phones to coding ideas and interventions, and enable access to spark creativity and create without boundaries.

8. One size doesn’t fit all. Even in communities where some girls have smartphone access, others will be borrowing basic phones for basic functions. Design with the diversity of audience in mind, for example by using SMS and less-advanced solutions for some situations, and social and online sites for others.

Download the full findings of Real girls, real lives, connected