November 30, 2012

The Best (and Worst) of Mobile Connectivity

Cell phones play a central role in Americans’ digital lives—linking them with friends, family and information, but occasionally serving as a distraction or annoyance

Many are devoted to their devices, but express ambivalence about the demands of constant connectivity

WASHINGTON (November 30, 2012) – Some 85% of American adults now own a cell phone, and these mobile devices now play a central role in many aspects of their owners’ lives according to a new survey by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project. For many cell owners, their phone is an essential utility that they check frequently, keep close at all times, and would have trouble functioning without:

  • 67% of cell owners find themselves checking their phone for messages, alerts, or calls—even when they don’t notice their phone ringing or vibrating. Some 18% of cell owners say that they do this “frequently.”
  • 44% of cell owners have slept with their phone next to their bed because they wanted to make sure they didn’t miss any calls, text messages, or other updates during the night.
  • 29% of cell owners describe their cell phone as “something they can’t imagine living without.”

Despite this connection to their devices, most cell owners don’t worry too much (or get many complaints from their friends) about spending too much time with their phones:

  • 11% of cell owners say that they themselves sometimes worry that they are spending too much time with their phone.
  • 12% of cell owners say that people they know tell them that they are spending too much time using their phone.

Indeed, many cell owners hear complaints from friends that they don’t devote enough time to monitoring their mobile communications:

  • 39% of cell owners say that people they know have complained because they don’t respond promptly to phone calls or text messages.
  • 33% of cell owners say that people they know have complained because they don’t check their phone frequently enough.

“In a nutshell, this is the modern dilemma: There is pronounced social pressure for people to stay connected and respond quickly to the incoming blizzard of contact from others. At the same time, many people wish they could disengage every once in a while,” said Aaron Smith, Research Associate and lead author of the report. “The challenge is for people to manage their time and their contacts in a way that gives them oases of peace and quiet, without being so disconnected that they miss out on important social moments.”

Overall, cell owners are far more likely to view their phone as a time-saver than as a time-waster. Some 33% of cell owners agree with the statement that their phone “saves you time because they can always access the information you need,” while just 3% agree with the statement that their phone “costs you time because you are constantly being distracted or interrupted.” And when asked to assess the impact of their cell phone on various aspects of daily life, cell owners see some clear benefits—particularly when it comes to maintaining connections to friends and family:

  • 65% of cell owners say that their phone has made it “a lot” easier to stay in touch with the people they care about.
  • 28% of cell owners say that their phone has made it “a lot” easier to plan and schedule their daily routine.
  • 26% of cell owners say that their phone has made it “a lot” easier to be productive while doing things like sitting in traffic or waiting in line.

On the other hand, some users see a downside to cell ownership in the form of increased distractions and difficulty disconnecting from work life:

  • 9% of cell owners say that their phone makes it “a lot” harder to disconnect from work life.
  • 7% of cell owners say that their phone makes it “a lot” harder to give people their undivided attention.
  • 7% of cell owners say that their phone makes it “a lot” harder to focus on a single task without being distracted.

“Cell owners have become extremely attached and attuned to their phones, but many express ambivalence about that attachment,” said Smith. “They love—and love to hate—the convenience and connectivity their phones afford. Although most would say that the benefits outweigh the costs, they freely complain about the downsides of hyper-connectedness, with the heaviest mobile users being some of the most persistent grumblers.”

When asked to describe in their own words what they like most about owning a cell phone, 17% of cell owners say that the best thing about their phone is that it is convenient; 12% say that they like the ability to call or talk with others at any time; and 11% like that they can get help in case of an emergency. When asked what they like least about owning a cell phone, 24% point to the fact that they are constantly available and can be reached at any time, 15% dislike the cost of cell phone ownership, and 12% cite problems with bad reception, poor signal, or dropped calls.

Yet even as cell phones have taken on an essential role in users’ lives, some 15% of adults do not own a cell phone at all. When asked for the main reason why they do not have a cell phone, 38% of these non-adopters say that they don’t need a cell phone or are happy with their existing landline service, while 11% say that they simply do not like cell phones or aren’t interested in purchasing one. Some 21% of these non-adopters say that cost is the main reason why they do not own a cell phone.

For the 40% of adults who own a cell phone but have not yet upgraded to a smartphone, economic factors play a more significant role. Some 37% of non-smartphone owners cite cost as their main barrier to adoption, while 29% indicate that they have refrained from upgrading because they “don’t need” a more advanced phone, and 9% say that they have not upgraded because smartphones are too complicated and/or they don’t know how to use them.

The findings of the study are detailed in a new report entitled, “The Best (and Worst) of Mobile Connectivity”. The report is based on a nationally representative telephone survey of 2,254 adults (including 1,954 cell phone owners) conducted between March 15-April 3, 2012. Interviews were conducted in English and Spanish and on landline and cell phones. The margin of error for the full sample is plus or minus 2.4 percentage points.

About the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project

The Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project is one of seven projects that make up the Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan, nonprofit “fact tank” that provides information on the issues, attitudes and trends shaping America and the world. The Project produces reports exploring the impact of the Internet on families, communities, work and home, daily life, education, health care, and civic and political life. The Project aims to be an authoritative source on the evolution of the Internet through surveys that examine how Americans use the Internet and how their activities affect their lives.

Media contacts

Aaron Smith: asmith@pewinternet.org and 202 419-4516