Beyond text messaging and voice calling, teens reported using several other features of their cell phones. The chart below provides a high-level snapshot of the percentage of teens who use their handset to go online, email, access social network sites, instant message, take/exchange pictures, take/exchange video, play music/games, and make purchases. The ensuing sub-sections provide more detailed analysis of the usage patterns associated with these technological affordances.
A sizable minority of teens use their cell phone to go online.
In examining how and how often teens use their cell phones to go online, the survey asked about general internet use, email, and social network sites. While these areas do not comprise an exhaustive list of activities, they reflect some of the key aspects of mobile internet use among teens in the U.S.
Cell phones help bridge the digital divide by providing internet access to less-privileged teens.
When asked whether they ever use the internet from their cell phones, 27% of cell phone users replied yes. Girls (30%) and boys (24%) both report going online with their handsets, though the difference is not statistically significant. With 73% of teen cell phone users not going online with their cell phones, it is clear that the computer is still their primary resource for using the internet. Looking at the breakdown according to age, the figure above shows that older teens with cell phones are more likely to go online with their cell phones than younger users. This difference may reflect a difference in disposable income to pay for Mobile internet connectivity, as many teens begin earning their own money through summer jobs and part-time employment during the school year as they grow older. Teens with their own separate service plan are more likely to use the cell phone to go online (39%) than those who are covered by a family plan (26%), further suggesting that as they grow more independent, teens use their resources to expand their use of the cell phone.
Responses in the focus groups also illustrate how cost is an important factor in whether the internet is included in their service plan, especially for younger teens who are more financially dependent on their parents. This theme is reflected in several comments from teens in middle school, such as "[The] internet costs more and half the time I’m around a computer anyway so there’s really no point of having it." Another younger teen explained:
- I had the internet [on my phone] for a while but I didn’t really use it because I didn’t really need it. So my mom cut it and was like, ‘You aren’t using it.’ But now I realize I would like to have it, but my mom said it’s too much money so she won’t get it back on.
Another theme that came out of the focus groups is that, compared with computers, cell phones offer less utility for accessing the internet because of poor user interface and slow performance. One high school girl commented, "They have a mobile version of the internet but it’s really basic, you can’t see all the features, like what the site has to offer, and it’s slow." This remark was echoed by middle school boys who explained, "Using the computer is easier because I have the mouse, and the phone is slower than the computer," and, "For some reason there’s just something about [using the cell phone to go online] that’s not, you don’t get like the same effect out of it, and I personally like to be on the computer." Some mentioned that high-end handsets such as the iPhone offer greater utility, but very few of the participants had these high-end handsets because they are expensive and oftentimes use a different network than the one their family plan is on.
The cell phone provides an opportunity to access the internet for a sizable portion of cell phone users who do not go online otherwise.
One notable finding about internet access is that, among teen cell phone owners, 21% of those who do not go online or use email through a conventional computer instead use their phone handset to go online. In other words, the cell phone provides an opportunity to access the internet for a sizable portion of users who do not go online otherwise.
A more careful look at how household income relates to going online sheds more light on the situation. On the surface, one might find it surprising that teen cell phone owners in the lowest household income category are most likely to use their handset to go online. However, this might be explained by the fact that members of the lowest income category are also the least likely to have a computer in the home. That is, the cell phone appears to be a viable alternative for internet access for some teens living in households that cannot afford computers.
There are also racial and ethnic differences in cell phone-based internet use, with certain minorities being significantly more likely to use their cell phone to go online than white teens. More specifically, 44% of teens whose parents are black and 35% of those with Hispanic parents use their cell phone to go online, as opposed to 21% of teens with white parents.
These trends reveal an interesting paradox. On the one hand, going online through the cell phone is cost-prohibitive for many teens, especially younger ones who must rely on their parents to pay for this service. At the same time, it also provides teens from lower income households without a computer an opportunity to use the internet, hence helping to bridge the digital divide.