September 12, 2013

New report on the adoption of mobile and social location-based services

74% of adult smartphone owners say they use their phone to get directions or other information based on their current location.

30% of adult social media users 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.

12% of adult smartphone owners say they use a geosocial service to “check in” to certain locations or share their location with friends, down from 18% in early 2012.

WASHINGTON (September 12, 2013) – 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.

A new report 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.
  • 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, down from 18% in early 2012. Among 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.

“The location layer is a core aspect of the smartphone experience, one that brings a new dimension to how people find and share information on the go,” said Kathryn Zickuhr, Research Associate for the Pew Research Center’s Internet Project and author of the report. “And for an increasing number of social media users, location tagging offers a new way to share context around photos and other information they share on their social networks.”

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 different question, over a third (35%) of adult cell app users said they have turned off the location-tracking feature on their cell phone because they were concerned that other individuals or companies could access that information.

“Perhaps unsurprisingly, our research has shown that location is considered to be sensitive information,” Zickuhr said. “So even though most smartphone owners use their phone’s location-tracking feature for information, many also disable that feature at various times to prevent third parties from accessing that same information.”