September 12, 2013

Location-Based Services

Main findings

The role of location in digital life is changing as growing numbers of internet users are adding a new layer of location information to their posts, and a majority of smartphone owners use their phones’ location-based services.1

A new survey by the Pew Research Center’s Internet Project sheds light on three major aspects of how location figures in digital life:

  • Many people use their smartphones to navigate the world: 74% of adult smartphone owners ages 18 and older say they use their phone to get directions or other information based on their current location.
  • There is notable growth in the number of social media users who are now setting their accounts to include location in their posts. Among adult social media users ages 18 and older, 30% say that at least one of their accounts is currently set up to include their location in their posts, up from 14% who said they had ever done this in 2011.2 This trend is also showing up among younger users. An earlier Pew Internet survey of teens ages 12-17 found that 16% of teen social media users have their accounts set up to automatically include their location in posts.3
  • There is a modest drop in the number of smartphone owners who use “check in” location services. Some 12% of adult smartphone owners say they use a geosocial service to “check in” to certain locations or share their location with friends. That is down from 18% of smartphone owners who reported doing that type of activity in early 2012. A plurality of these geosocial service users (39%) say they check into places on Facebook; 18% say they use Foursquare and 14% say they use Google Plus, among other services.

Taken together, these trends show the ascent of location awareness and the role it might play in the life of users—and the technology companies that are scrambling to provide more alert-style applications that tell people who and what is near them.

Local is a bigger part of the broader social media landscape, and the rise of local services is strongly tied to the increase in smartphone ownership. The majority of smartphone owners say they are making use of their phones’ location-based services, and the share of all adults who do this continues to grow along with increasing smartphone adoption.

Yet even as most smartphone owners use their phones’ abilities to get location-specific information, data from earlier surveys also shows that mobile users of all ages say they have turned off location-tracking features at some point due to privacy concerns:

  • As of September 2012, almost half (46%) of teen app users say they have turned off the location tracking feature on their cell phone or in an app on a phone or tablet because they were worried about other people or companies being able to access that information.
  • As of April 2012, in response to a question measuring a somewhat different behavior, over a third (35%) of adult cell app users said they have turned off the location-tracking feature on their cell phones.4

About this survey

The findings in this report are based on data from telephone interviews conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates International from April 17 to May 19, 2013, among a sample of 2,252 adults ages 18 and older.  Telephone interviews were conducted in English and Spanish by landline and cell phone. For results based on the total sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the error attributable to sampling is plus or minus 2.3 percentage points.  More information is available in the Methods section at the end of this report.

Cite this publication: Kathryn Zickuhr. “Location-Based Services.” Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C. (September 12, 2013) http://www.pewinternet.org/2013/09/12/location-based-services/, accessed on July 22, 2014.

  1. Our definition of a smartphone owner includes anyone who says directly that their phone is a smartphone or who says that their phone operates on a smartphone platform common to the U.S. market (56% of all adults). For more information, see: http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2013/Smartphone-Ownership-2013.aspx
  2. Change in question wording over time. See “Survey questions” at the end of this report for details.
  3. “Social media users” are defined as online adults who use social networking sites or Twitter. As of May 2013, 72% of internet users use a social networking site like Facebook, and 18% use Twitter. http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2013/social-networking-sites.aspx
  4. http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2012/Mobile-Privacy/Main-Findings/Section-2.aspx For more information about Americans’ online privacy and anonymity practices in general, see “Anonymity, Privacy, and Security Online” (2013), available at http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2013/Anonymity-online.aspx.