Does Access to Information Technology Make People Happier?

Access to information and communication technology through cell phones, the internet, and electronic media has increased exponentially around the world. While a few decades ago cell phones were a luxury good in wealthy countries, our data show that today over half of respondents in Sub-Saharan Africa and about 80 percent of those in Latin America and Southeast Asia have access to cell phones. In addition to making phone calls and text messaging, cell phones are used for activities such as accessing the internet and social network sites. Meanwhile, the launch of mobile banking gives access to these technologies an entirely new dimension, providing access to financial services in addition to information and communication technology. It is estimated that in Kenya, where the mobile banking “revolution” originated, there are some 18 million mobile money users (roughly 75 percent of all adults). Given the expanding role of information technology in today’s global economy, in this paper we explore whether this new access also enhances well-being.

Neither of the authors is an expert on information technology. The real and potential effect of information technology on productivity, development, and other economic outcomes has been studied extensively by those who are. Building on past research on the economics of well-being and on the application of the well-being metrics to this particular question, we hope to contribute an understanding of how the changes brought about by information and communication technology affect well-being in general, including its non-income dimensions.

Our study has two related objectives. The first is to understand the effects of the worldwide increase in communications capacity and access to information technology on human well-being. The second is to contribute to our more general understanding of the relationship between well-being and capabilities and agency. Cell phones and information technology are giving people around the world – and particularly the poor – new capabilities for making financial transactions and accessing other services which were previously unavailable to them. We explore the extent to which the agency effect of having access to these capabilities manifests itself through both hedonic and evaluative aspects of well-being.