August 26, 2015

Americans’ Views on Mobile Etiquette

Chapter 2: Phone Use in Public Areas

One of the key parts of this survey centered on questions about how cell owners use their phones in public places — for instance, whether they use their phones to look up information about where they are going or to avoid interacting with other people nearby. It emerged that people use their phones in a host of ways, many of which are clearly for social purposes.

How people use their phones in public

When they are in public places, cellphone owners say they most frequently use their phones for basic social or information-oriented tasks. For instance:

  • 65% say they frequently or occasionally look up information about where they are going or how to get there
  • 70% frequently or occasionally coordinate get-togethers with others
  • 67% frequently or occasionally catch up with family and friends.

Many also report using their phones to pass the time, catch up on other tasks or get information about the people they are planning to see, but these activities are less frequent.

Among the activities we queried, the least common activity was using one’s phone specifically to avoid interacting with others nearby. Most cellphone users say that they rarely or never use their phone to avoid interacting with others, while 23% say they do this at least occasionally.

As a rule, smartphone users are more likely to do these things frequently than other cellphone owners, and younger adults are more likely to do these things frequently than older adults.

People Use Their Cellphones in Public for a Variety of Purposes

A closer examination of each activity follows:

Look up information about where you are going or how to get there

A majority of cellphone owners (65%) say that when they are in public places, they use their cellphone at least occasionally to look up information about where they are going or how to get there. Some 33% of all cellphone owners do this frequently, making it one of the most common activities we queried. Among smartphone owners, roughly eight-in-ten (82%) look up this type of information at least occasionally when in public, with 44% doing so frequently. As with almost all of the cellphone activities we asked about, younger cellphone users are more likely to do this frequently than those in older age groups.

To coordinate getting together with others

Most cellphone owners (70%) also say that they at least occasionally use their phones while in public spaces to coordinate getting together with others, with 29% doing so frequently. By age: 81% of cell owners ages 18 to 29 do this at least occasionally, compared with 76% of cell users ages 30 to 49, 65% of those ages 50 to 64 and 48% of those 65 and older.

Smartphone Owners Use Their Phones Frequently for a Variety of Reasons

To catch up with family and friends

Two-thirds (67%) of cellphone owners say that when they are out in public spaces, they use their phone to catch up with family and friends at least occasionally, with 29% doing so frequently. Women are more likely than men to say they frequently use their phone to catch up with family and friends in this way. This difference holds across age groups: 41% of young women under age 50 say they do this frequently, compared with 29% younger men, and 25% of women ages 50 and older do this frequently, compared with 17% of older men.

For no particular reason, just for something to do

About half of cellphone owners say that when they are in public, they use their phones for no particular reason — just for something to do — either frequently (18%) or occasionally (32%). By age, the differences are noteworthy: 76% of cell owners ages 18 to 29 use their phone at least occasionally in public for no particular reason, just for something to do. That compares with 63% of cell owners ages 30 to 49, 34% of those ages 50 to 64 and just 16% those ages 65 and above.

To catch up on other tasks you need to accomplish

Similarly, about half (52%) of cellphone owners say that they at least occasionally use their phone to catch up on other tasks when they’re in public spaces, with 18% doing so frequently. Among smartphone owners, 61% do this at least occasionally and 23% do so frequently. Additionally, black cellphone owners are more likely to frequently use their phones to catch up on other tasks (31%) in this way compared with white (16%) and Hispanic (21%) cell owners.

Get information or details about people you are planning to see

Around a third of cellphone owners (36%) say they at least occasionally use their phones to get information or details about people they are planning to see when they’re in public spaces, with 12% doing so frequently.

Avoid interacting with others who are near you

Overall, around one-quarter (23%) of cellphone owners say that when they are in public spaces they use their phone to avoid interacting with others who are near them at least occasionally, including 6% who do this frequently. Female cellphone owners under age 50 are relatively more likely than other groups to say they frequently use their phones to avoid others while in public, with 12% of younger women ages 18 to 49 saying they do this frequently, compared with 5% of younger men and 4% of older adults of either gender. Among cellphone owners, blacks (12%) and Hispanics (10%) are also more likely to say they use their phone to avoid interacting with others than whites (5%), though the bulk of cellphone owners (regardless of racial or ethnic background) say that they rarely or never do this.

This list of reasons people might use their phones in public places is neither exhaustive nor exclusive. It is certainly possible that reasons such as “just for something to do” or “to avoid interacting with others” are an underlying motivation for many other types of phone use in various situations in public. However, cellphone users are far more likely to say that they tend to use their phones explicitly to connect with others than specifically to avoid those around them. Thus, it appears that anti-social behavior itself is rarely a primary motivator. At the same time, those around the cellphone user may still experience that other person’s phone use as anti-social, even if that was not the explicit intention of the user.