August 15, 2011

Americans and Their Cell Phones

Half of adult cell owners have used their phones recently to get just-in-time information, and two in five have used them to cope with emergencies or to combat boredom

13% of cell owners have pretended to use their phone in order to avoid interacting with people around them

Washington, DC (August 15, 2011) – Mobile phones have become a near-ubiquitous tool for information seeking and communicating, and these devices have an impact on many aspects of their owners’ daily lives. In a nationally representative telephone survey, the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project found that 83% of American adults have a mobile phone and during the 30 days preceding the interview reported these experiences:

  • Cell phones are useful for quick information retrieval (so much so that their absence can cause problems) – Half of all adult cell owners (51%) had used their phone at least once to get information they needed right away. One quarter (27%) said that they experienced a situation in the previous month in which they had trouble doing something because they did not have their phone at hand.
  • Cell phones are an important tool in emergency situations – 40% of cell owners said they found themselves in an emergency situation in which having their phone with them helped.
  • Cell phones can help stave off boredom – 42% of cell owners used their phone for entertainment when they were bored.
  • Despite their advantages, some cell phone owners just need an occasional break – 29% of cell owners turned their phone off for a period of time just to get a break from using it.
  • With advantages comes frustration – 20% of cell owners experienced frustration because their phone was taking too long to download something; 16% had difficulty reading something on their phone because the screen was too small; and 10% had difficulty entering a lot of text on their phone.
  • Cell phones can help prevent unwanted personal interactions – 13% of cell owners pretended to be using their phone in order to avoid interacting with the people around them.

94% of young adults (those between the ages of 18 and 29) own cell phones. They and the 35% of Americans who own smartphones are especially likely to use their phones to quickly access needed information and to use their phones for entertainment, but also more likely than average to express frustration with slow download speeds and to have trouble accomplishing tasks when their phones are not at hand.

“For many Americans, cell phones have become an essential tool and playtime toy,” noted Aaron Smith, a Senior Research Specialist at the Project and author of the Project’s report on cell phone usage. “They use their phones for ‘on-the-go’ entertainment and just-in-time information, but many have a complicated relationship with their phone. Users who are accustomed to relying on their phones may experience trouble accomplishing things they’d like to do if their phone is not available or is hampered by slow download speeds. And many just seek an occasional break from always-on connectivity.”

Text messaging and picture taking continue to top the list of ways that Americans use their mobile phones—three quarters of all cell owners (73%) use their phones for each of these purposes. Other relatively common activities include sending photos or videos to others (54% of cell owners do this) as well as accessing the internet (44%).

In addition, several mobile activities exhibited significant growth on a year-to-year basis from 2010 to 2011:

  • Sending a photo or video to someone rose from 36% of cell owners in May 2010 to 54% of cell owners in May 2011
  • Accessing the internet—from 38% to 44%
  • Sending or receiving email—from 34% to 38%
  • Watching a video—from 20% to 26%
  • Posting a photo or video online—from 15% to 22%

One third of American adults (35%) own a smartphone of some kind, and these users take advantage of a wide range of their phones’ capabilities. Fully nine in ten smartphone owners use text messaging or take pictures with their phones, while eight in ten use their phone to go online or send photos or videos to others. Many activities—such as downloading apps, watching videos, accessing social networking sites or posting multimedia content online—are almost entirely confined to the smartphone population.

“Smartphones have become all-in-one information and communication devices,” said Pew Internet’s Smith. “Smartphone owners are communicating with friends, sharing multimedia content, creating their own material, and accessing the world of digital information from a device that sits in their purse or pocket.”