Under quarantine, Filipinos spend more time on Pornhub, Twitter, and Zoom

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The Philippines is one of the most engaged internet users in the world, but the country also suffers from a palpable digital divide. Illustration by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — On the second day of the implemented lockdown over Luzon, it seems internet users in the Philippines were feeling quite hot and bothered. Research shows that website traffic for in the country increased to 2.3 million — the highest spike since early this year.

PornHub sees a spike in traffic on the second day of the lockdown. This graph measures website traffic. Data from SIMILARWEB

The lockdown enforced on March 16 turned Metro Manila into a desolate metropolis. Main highways were abandoned, a deafening silence replaced traffic noises, and public transportation operations, once filled with snaking lines of commuters, were parked. As businesses, offices, and schools closed, people were forced to transition to life online. The Philippines has one of the most engaged internet users in the world, with 73 million people spending an average of 10 hours a day online — the highest record globally. However, it is also a country that struggles with a steep digital divide. We look at usage data from digital research companies SimilarWeb and Apptopia to see how the country used the internet in a time when everyone was stuck at home, and explore what role the internet has within these households, including for those who struggled to go online.

More than a month into the lockdown, Ella, 4, and Erin, 2, try ballet class online for the first time. Their mom, Pamy Velilla-Hernandez, 37, signed them up to courses through Zoom. Ella is patient for the first few minutes, watching as her teacher demonstrates some poses. But Erin looks like she has completely lost interest.

Velilla-Hernandez works as a client service director at a creative digital agency. When the community quarantine came into effect, it wasn’t so hard for the office to adjust. "Because my work does not necessarily require physical presence, deliverables can be done remotely, so work was continuous and did not stop," says Velilla-Hernandez.

She reorganized her apartment to integrate both her and her husband’s workplaces, her children’s playschool, and a home for them all. She goes to work by signing in at 10 a.m. to answer emails and attend meetings, and ends work by going offline when the clock hits five. When she can, she'll squeeze in a quick workout, eat with the girls, or sweep around the house.

In the first two weeks, she says, it was insane. "It felt that there were no boundaries between work and personal lives.” With work set up at home, she says that “it felt like we were on call until hours beyond the usual work shifts. Clients also knew that we were constantly online, so they would message and engage with us to their convenience. Knowing that we were home 24/7, the kids also expected more time with them, so it was definitely a struggle at first.”

Ella stopped attending playschool, which moved online to teach kids through the video platform Zoom. Now she is taking online summer classes. “We’ve been successful with that since the adjustment was not too big for her, meaning she was with familiar faces and the kids are only a maximum of four a class — which is good so there’s less distractions,” says Velilla-Hernandez with relief. To ensure that Ella sits through the whole class, they both have to stay inside the same room, each working with their laptop. With this kind of set up, Ella is aware that she needs to listen to her teacher while mom is at work.

Filipinos have become reliant on video chats like Zoom as many users find ways to gather socially online and work from home. This graph measures app sessions: the number of times a user opens the app on the phone. It can be multiple sessions a day. Data from APPTOPIA

For many households like Velilla-Hernandez’s, video chats like Zoom have become a crucial platform for groups to gather, an online venue to replace the old public grounds. Aside from school and offices, old friends have reunited to drink together on Zoom; birthday parties are celebrated here, and fitness studios have moved to video gatherings too.

The extended amount of time at home means more time is spent online, and Velilla-Hernandez finds she is visiting some websites more frequently than before. Because gyms are closed, she logs onto YouTube for free exercises. She frequents e-commerce websites to stock up on necessities.

Changing social media habits

“I look at Lazada for online affordable indulgences, especially for the house, and I’ve looked at BeautyMNL more lately because I’ve been running out of skincare or hair care supplies," shares Velilla-Hernandez. Many online businesses suffered logistical issues in the first few weeks due to an increase in demand. The lockdown caused delays in deliveries, forcing some to suspend operations completely. But as weeks went by, companies made adjustments, and Filipinos became more accustomed to the idea of shopping online, much more than they were even before the lockdown began, data shows.

Velilla-Hernandez feels hapless about being very reliant on the internet. She and her husband pay ₱3,500 a month, and subscribe with two different service providers for fiber internet connection. The nature of their jobs demand that they are online all the time, but even with one of the more premium internet connections in Manila, “Lately, both ISPs have been faulty, and it’s so hard if connection is not seamless because I can’t hear and present well,” she says. “I can’t live without the internet now. Otherwise, we will be forced to work back in the office."

With the fears of the global pandemic looming in the back of everyone’s minds, it’s a particularly uncanny time for fashion and beauty influencers, whose work revolves around social media. The mood isn't ripe for jet-setting and selfies, and research shows Filipinos are checking news websites more frequently.

Influencers learned to adapt content to become sensitive to the grim situation. “As a content creator, I want my followers to connect with me — and if they’re also staying home like me, you really have to give them something they’ll be able to learn from and hopefully be able to do at home as well. At the end of the day, you want them to stay positive, hopeful, and creative too,” says fashion and beauty vlogger Laureen Uy, who maintains one million followers on Instagram. “That’s why I started producing more home videos: from new recipes to share, to decluttering tips.”

Radio DJ and events host Jazmin Reyes, who also maintains a following online, says the lockdown had made her reflect about the work she was sharing. “Being a responsible netizen, I think, is an adjustment everyone had to do. People’s emotions are heightened during these unprecedented times and aggravating [their emotions] is as simple as poking someone on the shoulder. Everyone is [online]. Everything is highlighted. So you better make sure that you don’t offend anyone with your posts and you have to be extra careful with what you say and how you say it.” She says she still uses Instagram primarily for work, but that she has also changed her content since the pandemic began. “[I] still focus on fashion but, with a certain socio-political twist.”

How content is being consumed has changed as well. Now that Filipinos are not commuting, YouTube mobile apps seem completely disregarded, as users move to viewing it on the computers screens.

But it looks like they are still enthusiastic about mobile apps like Instagram, Tiktok, and Netflix, and are spending more time on it as well. Dance challenges have spread like wildfire as new users join the TikTok bandwagon, including a rather unusual appearance from presidential spokesperson Harry Roque whose debut post is an attempt at SZA’s “The Weekend.”

Filipinos are using Instagram, TikTok, and Netflix more than ever during the lockdown, with session usage increase for each reaching almost 1M. Sessions refer to the time a user opens the app on the phone. It can be multiple sessions a day. Data from APPTOPIA and SIMILARWEB

It’s also evident that people are moving their conversations online. Uy relies on her social media accounts to keep up with the latest news. She says, “Since I don’t have cable TV, I heavily rely on the internet to know what’s happening with the world. It’s my main source of news update.” Business manager Lourisse Miller, 30, based in Metro Manila, recently reactivated her account on Twitter because she says it gets the news fastest. “People are using Twitter to show their dissent against the government dealings,” she says, particularly with regard to the pandemic. When asked why she thinks Twitter is the chosen platform to protest, she explains, "It seems to be more real with how people convey their feelings. It’s instant, raw and unbridled. Whereas Facebook and Instagram are filtered and staged. It’s safer as well as Twitter is better with detecting troll accounts."

These graphs measure app sessions (left) and website traffic (right) on Twitter. Sessions refer to the time a user opens the app on the phone. It can be multiple sessions a day. Data from APPTOPIA and SIMILARWEB

Digital divide

But for others in the Philippines, having access to the internet or a reliable connection is not an option. Despite a high penetration of internet users, the Philippines is still falling behind with the digitization of services. Many establishments still function on a cash-basis only, and some government processes still require paperwork. The pandemic brought forth not only new digital spaces and internet habits, but also the existence of a consequential inequality in the country.

Academic researchers Eszter Hargittai and Paul DiMaggio have posited that despite high internet penetration, there is still a divide that separates those who has access to the internet, from those who don't. They referred to this as the digital divide — encompassing dimensions such as having the right equipment, the right know-how, and the right freedoms to use the internet whenever needed — aspects that set Filipinos apart from one another.

Ervine Jules Beltran Sape, a 20-year-old student from Saint Louis University in Baguio City, decried for his school administration to be considerate of its students. As the coronavirus pandemic was getting worse, the city government executed an order to suspend classes in all educational institutions, and his university announced they would finish the remaining semester online. While the school had an existing online system in place, Sape says, it was unreliable, rarely updated, and only used for administration announcements. For example, when the students wanted to access the student portal to see their released grades, the system was always crashing.

Sape has to budget ₱1,000 a month so that he can access the internet in his dormitory; though his other classmates, he says, cannot even afford this. “I have groupmates for various projects [who] are really unreachable because they do not have laptops or smartphones,” says Sape. “I have no other choice but to do the task supposedly assigned to them. But my capacity to do this is also limited, so the whole group suffers.” He shares that he often finds students in computer shops when they need to go online. “There are students who really go to computer shops and pay for their stay just to do their assignments, research, and have access to updates." When some of his classmates went back to their hometowns just as the university decided to close, he says it was harder to reach those who lived in far-flung areas due to erratic phone signals.

In Antipolo City, 28-year-old Jhoniel Parol has been driving a tricycle for five years. He was shocked to learn he had to stop working because the lockdown meant public transport services like tricycles were no longer allowed to operate. “Nadismaya po at natakot kasi may anak po ako na may sakit sa puso at nag-gagamot,” says Parol. Without other sources of income, he relies on relief goods during the lockdown to feed his family. Then he found out about a Facebook group called "Super Tsuper," created to allow tricycle drivers like Parol, who needed financial support due to job loss, to call for help. The group connected them to other Filipino citizens eager to help, encouraging users to send a small amount of money through GCash, a subsidiary of telecommunications company Globe that functions as an e-wallet for online money transfers and utility bill payments. In the start of the year, G-cash was assertive in pushing more Filipinos to use the app to pay for essential goods. The concept of an e-wallet though is unfamiliar to many Filipinos, ninety-nine percent of whom were still using cash for local transactions by the end of 2018.

However, the lockdown saw a spike in downloads and usage for the app. With people forced to stay indoors, GCash became an easy method for people to send money to one another, and was used widely in sending financial relief.

​ An e-wallet app, GCash, has a significant number of downloads after the lockdown is announced. The app allows people to make mobile payments, send money, and pay utility bills. This graph measures the number of app downloads. Data from APPTOPIA

On the Facebook group "Super Tsuper," Parol shared the photos of his two children, Meigan and Biel Liam, aged 7 and 2, including pictures of the prescribed medications that he has to pay for. His daughter Meigan was diagnosed with congenital heart disease. Parol doesn’t have internet access at home. His main source of news is the television. He was able to make the post on Facebook by accessing the site through his phone. When he has extra money, he applies for a promo called "Facebook 10" through his service provider, which costs ₱10 and allows him to use the Facebook app for three days. The promo doesn’t let him access any other website except for the social media platform. Through "Super Tsuper," he was able to receive ₱2,000. “Nakabili po ako ng gatas, diaper, at ulam," he says. But Parol airs some regret at the fact that the app requires internet access to open and collect the money, access that he cannot afford at all times.

New normal

Today, the government has eased certain quarantine restrictions despite the number of COVID-19 cases still being reported. Parol now goes out twice a week to drive the tricycle to earn money for his family. Velilla-Hernandez is ready to brace this new routine as her company considers adopting the work-from-home set-up indefinitely. Meanwhile, the disparate inequality in Philippine society continues to deepen, as the autonomy of use over internet access oppresses and separates during a particularly turbulent political climate. The country merely braces itself to wake up to a grim “new normal,” one which sees changes in the way the internet is both used and abused.


Update: The first graph has been corrected to reflect the correct usage increase of 2.3 million instead of 1.3 million.