April 20, 2010

Teens and Mobile Phones

Introduction: Why study mobile phones?

Introduction and background

Wireless communication has emerged as one of the fastest diffusing mediums on the planet, fueling an emergent “mobile youth culture”1 that speaks as much with thumbs as it does with tongues. At one of our focus groups a teen boy gushed, “I have unlimited texts . . . which is like the greatest invention of mankind.” His enthusiasm was hardly unique. Cell phone use and, in particular, the rise of texting has become a central part of teens’ lives. They are using their phones to stay in touch with friends and parents. They are using them to share stories and photos. They are using them to entertain themselves when they are bored. They are using them to micro-coordinate their schedules and face-to-face gatherings. And some are using their phones to go online to browse, to participate in social networks, and check their emails. This is the sunny side of the story. Teens are also using mobile phones to cheat on tests and to skirt rules at school and with their parents. Some are using their phones to send sexts, others are sleeping with buzzing phones under their pillows, and some are using their phones to place calls and text while driving.

While a small number of children get a cell phone in elementary school, the real tipping point for ownership is in middle school. About six in ten (66%) of all children in our sample had a cell phone before they turned 14. Slightly less than 75% of all high school students had a cell phone.

This report particularly highlights the rapid rise of text messaging in recent months. Some 72% of all US teens are now text message users,2 up from 51% in 2006. Among them, the typical texter sends and receives 50 texts a day, or 1500 per month. By way of comparison a Korean, Danish or a Norwegian teen might send 15 – 20 a day and receives as many. Changes in subscription packages have encouraged widespread texting among US teens and has made them into world class texters. As a result, teens in America have integrated texting into their everyday routines. It is a way to keep in touch with peers even while they are engaged in other social activities. Often this is done discreetly and with little fuss. In other cases, it interrupts in-person encounters or can cause dangerous situations.

To understand the role that cell phones play in teens’ lives, the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project and Michigan’s Department of Communication Studies conducted a survey and focus groups in the latter part of 2009. The phone survey was conducted on landline and cell phones and included 800 youth ages 12-17 and one of their parents. It was administered from June 26-September 24, 2009. The overall survey has a margin of error of 4 percentage points; the portion dealing with teen cell owners involved 625 teens in the sample and has a margin of error of 4 percentage points; the portion dealing with teen texters involved 552 teens in the sample and has a margin of error of 5 percentage points.

A brief history of the mobile phone as a technology

The idea for cellular telephony originated in the US. The first cellular call and the first call from a hand held cellular device also were placed in the US.

The cell phone merges the landline telephony system with wireless communication. The landline telephone was first patented in 1876. Mobile radio systems have been used since the early 1900’s in the form of ship to shore radio, and were installed in some police cars in Detroit starting in 1921. The blending of landline telephone and radio communication came after the Second World War. The first commercially available “mobile radiophone service” that allowed calls from fixed to mobile telephones was offered in St. Louis in 1946. By 1964 there were 1.5 million mobile phone users in the US.3 This was a non-cellular system that made relatively inefficient use of the radio bandwidth. In addition, the telephones were large, energy intensive car-mounted devices. According to communications scholar Thomas Farley, the headlights of a car would noticeably dim when the user was transmitting a call.4

In the drive to produce a more efficient mobile telephone system, researchers W. Rae Young and Douglas Ring of Bell Labs developed the idea of cellular telephony, in which geographical areas are divided into a mesh of cells, each with its own cell tower.5 This allowed a far more efficient use of the radio spectrum and the “cell” phones needed less power to send and receive a signal. The first installation was in 1969 on the Amtrak Metroliner that traveled between New York City and Washington. Four years later Martin Cooper of Motorola made the first cellular call from a prototype handheld cell phone.

Regulation around mobile phones

After the inauguration of mobile phone service in the US, a regulatory environment that allowed multiple mobile-calling standards stifled mobile communication development and expansion in the US for several years. Indeed, the growth of the GSM standard in Europe and the rise of DoCoMo in Japan meant that the dramatic developments in the cell phone industry were taking place abroad. In the US, small license areas for mobile phone companies meant that users were constantly roaming outside their core area. A user in Denver would have to pay roaming charges if he or she made or received a call in Ft. Collins, Colorado Springs or Vail. To the degree that texting was available, users could only text to users in their home network.

In the late 1980’s industry consolidation eliminated the small local areas and by the turn of the millennium, interoperability between operators became standard, and the cost of calling plans and the price of handsets fell. Rather than being a yuppie accessory, the cell phone became widely-used by everyone from the captains of industry and finance to the people who shined their shoes and walked their dogs.

As cell phones have become more available, they are increasingly owned and used by children and teens. Further, as handsets become more loaded with capabilities ranging from video recording and sharing, to music playing and internet access, teens and young adults have an ever-increasing repertoire of use. Indeed, we are moving into an era when mobile devices are not just for talking and texting, but can also access the internet and all it has to offer. This connectivity with others and with content has directed the regulator’s lens onto mobile safety practices. It has also prompted the beginning of a cultural conversation about how to ensure that parents have the tools to regulate their child’s mobile use, should they choose to. Understanding how youth use mobile phones is vital to creating effective policy based on the reality of how the technology is used. It is also important to understand how telecommunications company policies and pricing affect how teens and parents use their phones.

Previous research on cell phones and teens

This report tries to expand a tradition of cell phone research that extends into the early 1990s,6 and work on landline telephony as far back as the 1970s.7 The first studies to examine the social consequences of the mobile phone came in the early 1990s when researchers examined its impact on residential markets.8 One of the earliest papers on cell phones examined it through the lens of gender; in 1993, Lana Rakow and Vija Navarro wrote about the cell phone and what they called “remote mothering.”9 Starting in the mid 1990s in Europe there was the beginning of more extended scholarship on cellular communication,10 and by 2000 work was being done in the US that evolved from a small number of articles to edited books and eventually to both popular and more scholarly books on mobile communication.11

Several themes have been central in these analyses. One is the use of cell phones in the “micro-coordination” of daily interaction.12 As the name implies, this line of research examines how the cell phone allows for a more nuanced form of coordination. Instead of having to agree on a time and place beforehand, individuals can negotiate the location and the timing of meetings as a situation clarifies itself. Micro-coordination can be used to organize get-togethers and it can be used to sort out the logistics of daily life (e.g. sending reminders to one another or exchanging information on the fly). Extending this concept further, the cell phone can be used to coordinate so called “flash mobs” as well as different kinds of protests.13

While micro-coordination describes an instrumental type of interaction, another line of research has examined how the cell phone can be used for expressive interaction. Since the device provides us direct access to one another, it allows us to maintain ongoing interaction with family and friends.14 This, in turn provides the basis for the enhancement of social cohesion.15 In this vein, some researchers have examined how the cell phone affects our sense of safety and security.16 The cell phone can be used to summon help when accidents have happened and they can be seen as a type of insurance in case something bad occurs. Others have examined how teens, as well as others, see the mobile phone as a form of self-expression. Having a cell phone is a status symbol and having a particularly sought after model can enhance our standing among peers.17

Finally, focusing directly on teens, there has been considerable research on the role of the cell phone as part of the emancipation process.18 Up to this point, however, there has been little quantitative analysis of teens in the US on this topic.19 Indeed this is one of the main questions considered in this report. Before the cell phone, there were often discussions in the home as to whether a teen could have a landline extension in her room. Teens’ push to have their own landline phone underscored their drive to control contact with their peers. The rise of the cell phone has changed the dimensions of this discussion. The cell phone has provided teens with their own communication channel. This access can be used to plan and to organize daily life and it can be used to exchange jokes and endearments. It can also be used to plan mischief of varying caliber, and it can be used to exchange photos that are – literally – the picture of innocence or of depravity.

The organization of the report

This report is the fruit of a collaboration between the University of Michigan and the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project in an attempt to broadly capture the current state of mobile phone ownership and use among American youth and their families today. From June through September 2009, the Pew Internet Project fielded a random digit-dial telephone survey among a nationally representative sample of 800 teens ages 12-17 and one of their parents or a guardian (the teen and their parent/guardian were interviewed independently). In addition to the telephone survey, the University of Michigan fielded 9 focus groups among teens ages 12-18 in four cities in June and October of 2009. The focus groups queried teens more deeply about attitudes toward and practices around their mobile phone.

The study has been guided by a desire to measure the state of affairs around mobile phones and youth in the US – how many, how much, how often, with whom? – and to better understand how mobile phones fit into and enhance (or detract from) friendships and family relationships.

The report is organized into five chapters. The first chapter covers many of the basic measurements around mobile phones, the demographic variations around their use, and different models of phone ownership. This chapter also explores the economics of teens’ phone use, including payments, and calling and texting plan structures.

The second chapter of the report looks in depth at text messaging and voice calling, and compares the two modes of communication. It then places both of those activities in the broader context of teens’ overall communications practices as well as in the context of all the activities that teens can and do engage in on their mobile phone handsets, such as listening to music, sending email, looking up websites online and taking and sharing photos and videos.

The third chapter examines parents’ and teens’ attitudes towards their cell phones, and the ways the devices enhance and disrupt their lives. It details how families and teens feel about safety and the phone, and the ways in which the phone has become a social and entertainment hub. This chapter also explores how the phone has become an electronic tether between parents and children, and teens and friends, one so potent that teens frequently sleep with their phone under their pillows.

Chapter four examines the ways in which parents and schools regulate and monitor teens’ mobile phone use and how those actions may relate to teen cell phone-related behaviors.

The fifth chapter looks at teens, cell phones and “adverse behaviors.” It recaps some of our previous research on sexting and distracted driving, and presents new research on harassment through the mobile phone, as well as teens’ experiences with spam and the sending of regrettable text messages.

The last section of the report details the full set of methods that we used to conduct the research that undergirds this report.

  1. numoffset=”6″ Castells, M., Fernandez-Ardevol, M., Qiu, J., & Sey, A. (2007). Mobile communication and society: A global perspective. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  2. This 72% of teens who text figure is slightly different than previous teens who text numbers that we have released. The difference lies in the question wording. For this question, we asked about teens texting friends, but we did not specify the platform (computer, cell phone) on which the texting was taking place. Our other teen texting number (66%) reflects teens who text on their own cell phone, and does not constrain who the teen may be texting with. Please see K9c and K20a in our questionnaire for exact question wording.
  3. Goggin, G. 2006. Cell phone culture: Mobile technology in everyday life. London: Routledge.
  4. Farley, T. 2005. “Mobile telephone history.” Telektronikk 3/4:22 – 34.
  5. Lindmark, S. 2002. “Evolution of techno-economic systems: An investigation of the history of mobile communications.” Doctoral Dissertation Thesis, Department of industrial management and economics, Chalmers University of Technology, Gothenberg, Sweden.
  6. Thanks to Fred Stutzman for his excellent literature review of this area.
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    Katz, James E., Lever, Katie M., and Chen, Yi-Fan. 2008. Mobile Music as Environmental Control and Prosocial Entertainment. in Katz, J.E. Handbook of Mobile Communication Studies. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
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