April 3, 2006

Americans and their cell phones

Washington — Americans say their cell phones aid them during emergencies and fill in their free time. But many also report driving unsafely while on their cells and they say they don’t like the new intrusions and public annoyances cell phones bring to their lives – not to mention their monthly bills.

The cell phone has become an integral and, for some, essential communications tool that has helped owners gain help in emergencies. Fully 74% of the Americans who own mobile phones say they have used their hand-held device in an emergency and gained valuable help. Another striking impact of mobile technology is that Americans are using their cell phones to shift they way they spend their time. Some 41% of cell phone owners say they fill in free time when they are traveling or waiting for someone by making phone calls. And 44% say they wait to make most of their cell calls for the hours when they do not count against their “anytime” minutes in their basic calling plan.

At the same time, there are new challenges associated with cell phone use. More than a quarter of cell phone owners (28%) admit they sometimes do not drive as safely as they should while they use their mobile devices. Among cell phone users, men (32%) are more likely than women (25%) to admit they sometimes don’t drive as safely as they should. Furthermore, 82% of all Americans and 86% of cell users report being irritated at least occasionally by loud and annoying cell users who conduct their calls in public places. Indeed, nearly one in ten cell phone owners (8%) admit they themselves have drawn criticism or irritated stares from others when they are using their cell phones in public. For some, the cell phone has become so central to their communications needs that they lose track of the expenses associated with their phones. Some 36% of cell owners say they have been shocked from time to time at the size of their monthly bills.

When it comes to the features Americans would like to add to their cell phones, the desire for maps tops the charts by a clear margin. Fully 47% of cell owners say they would like this feature and 38% say they would like to have instant messages from select friends sent to their cells. Some 24% of cell owners say they would like to use their phones to conduct searches for services such as movie listings, weather reports, and stock quotes. And a similar 24% of cell owners would like to add email to their mobile-phone functionality. A third of cell owners (35%) already use text messaging features on their phones and another 13% would like to add that capacity to their phone. Some 19% of cell owners say they would like to add the capacity to take still pictures to their cells.

These findings emerge in a national survey of cell phone owners by the Pew Research Center’s Pew Internet & American Life Project, the Associated Press and AOL. The findings provide a detailed picture of the role of the cell phone in modern life, including how the use of cell phones has helped people become more spontaneous and prolific in their communication patterns.

Half the survey was conducted among cell phone owners on their cell phones – one of the largest such samples ever conducted. In all, 1,503 people were surveyed between March 8 and March 28 – 752 of them on their landline phones and 751 on their cell phones. Some 1,286 cell phone users were interviewed in the sample. The overall sample and the cell-phone user sample have a margin of error of plus or minus three percentage points. It is likely that many of the behaviors reported here will intensify in coming years as more people become attached to and reliant on their mobile phones. Indeed, 23% of those who currently have landline phones say they are very likely or somewhat likely to convert to being only cell phone users. Other overall findings – interruptions, deception, texting spam and “American Idol” In this survey of adult cell users, more than a third say their cell phones have enabled some type of unwelcome intrusion in their lives.

  • 24% of cell-using adults report they often feel like they have to answer their cell phones even when it interrupts a meeting or a meal.
  • 22% believe that “too many” people try to get in touch with them because others know they have a cell phone. The reasons for this become clear when cell owners describe how they use their phones: Fully 52% of all cell owners say they keep their phone on all the time and 81% of cell-only users say the device is always on.
  • At times, mobile phones are used abet some white lies: 22% of cell owners say they are not always truthful about exactly where they are when they are on the phone. Younger users are much more likely to say they are not always honest about where they are: 39% of cell users ages 18-29 say that.
  • Spam has invaded cell phones, too. About one in six cell owners (18%) report receiving unsolicited text messages on their phones from advertisers. Asked if they had used their cells to vote in contests that had appeared on television, such as “American Idol,” 8% of cell owners said they had done that. Cell phone users are split in how attuned they are to making calls at times when it is less expensive to do so. Some 41% say they try to place most of their phone calls when they know the minutes they use won’t cost them extra money, while 58% report they don’t concentrate the use of their phones to those off peak hours.