How Much Do We Depend on Our Smartphones?

Source: Thinkstock

Source: Thinkstock

It’s become a common sentiment among smartphone owners addicted to their email notifications, productivity apps, messaging platforms, and mobile games that they couldn’t live without their smartphone. But a recent study by the Pew Research Center found that beyond acting as the indispensable source of driving directions, Google search results, and Facebook notifications, the smartphone acts as a lifeline for users who often have no other reliable way to access the Internet.

The report revealed that nearly two-thirds of Americans now own smartphones, and 19% of Americans depend, to some degree, on a smartphone to access online services and information, either because they lack broadband at home or because they have few options for access to the Internet other than their phone. Seven percent of Americans own a smartphone but have neither traditional broadband service at home, nor have access to easily available alternatives for going online. Pew’s Aaron Smith characterizes these users as “smartphone-dependent,” detailing the findings of a series of surveys conducted by the Pew Research Center and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

Sixty-four percent of American adults now own a smartphone, up from 35% in the spring of 2011. Smartphone ownership rates are particularly high among younger Americans, and among those with high income and education levels. The survey measured how much Americans rely on smartphones for online access in two different ways: by asking smartphone owners whether or not they have broadband service at home, and by asking whether they have a “reasonable” number of options for accessing the Internet from any location.

Pew found that 10% of Americans own a smartphone but don’t have any other form of high-speed Internet access at home beyond their mobile data plan. And 15% of Americans own a smartphone but have a limited number of ways get online without their phone. In all, 19% of Americans say that at least one of these conditions applies to them, and 7% say that both of these conditions apply. This second group is termed “smartphone-dependent” by the report.

Depending on a smartphone

The idea that many Americans rely on smartphones as their primary devices is not new. The Next Web reported last fall on the rise of tech designed for low-income Americans, noting that many low-income families often skip a PC altogether and depend on smartphones for their access to the Internet, instead. As the smartphone reaches near-ubiquity among Americans in the coming years, it will be increasingly important for companies to create tech products that resonate with America’s working class. But technology is still relatively expensive, and when people’s sole reliable means of Internet access is their phone, that phone ends up serving as the lifeline that connects them to all kind of critical information.

Specific groups of Americans rely on their smartphones for online access at elevated levels — including young adults, those with low incomes and levels of educational attainment, and non-white Americans. 15% of Americans aged 18 to 29 are heavily dependent on a smartphone for online access. 13% of Americans with an annual household income of less than $30,000 are smartphone-dependent, while only 1% of Americans from households earning more than $75,000 per year rely on their smartphones to a similar degree for online access. Finally, 12% of African Americans and 13% of Latinos are smartphone-dependent, compared with just 4% of whites.

The report also finds that 48% of smartphone-dependent users have had to cancel their cell service for a period of time due to the financial hardship of maintaining the service, and 30% say that they frequently reach the maximum amount of data apportioned by their plan. Smartphone users rely on their phones for more than calling, texting, and basic web browsing. In fact, 62% of smartphone users have used their phones to look up information about a health condition; 57% have used their phone to do online banking; and 44% have used their phone to look up information about a place to live. Also, 43% have used their phone to look up information about a job, 40% to look up government services or information, 30% to take a class or to get educational content, and 18% to submit a job application.

A majority of smartphone owners use their phones to stay informed on news events and to share details of local events with others — a behavior that’s common across a diverse group of smartphone owners. Data shows that 68% use their phones at least occasionally to follow breaking news events, and 33% say that they do so frequently. Meanwhile, 67% use their phones to share pictures, videos, or commentary about events happening in their communities, and 56% use their phones at least occasionally to learn about community events or activities.

Another important role of smartphones for a diverse group of owners is to help them get where they need to go, through turn-by-turn driving directions, public transit information, and reservations for taxi and car services. And half of smartphone owners have used their phones to get help in an emergency situation. Conversely, 44% of smartphone owners have had a problem doing something they needed to do because they didn’t have their phone with them.

The apps and features used the most

The Pew report also explains how the researchers studied which apps and features are the most widely and frequently used by smartphone owners. Using an “experience sampling” survey of smartphone owners, in which respondents were contacted twice a day over a period of one week and asked how they had used their phone in the hour prior to taking the survey, Pew learned about how Americans use their phones on a day-to-day basis. Pew reports that text-messaging was the most widely-used smartphone feature, though voice and video calling as well as email retain a place of prominence. Nearly all of the smartphone owners surveyed — 97% — used text messaging at least once over the course of the study period. Text messaging is followed in popularity by voice calling, a feature used by 92% of smartphone owners, using the internet at 89%, and using email at 88%.

Social networking, video consumption, and listening to music or podcasts are popular activities among young smartphone users — the same users who tend to use their smartphones to avoid boredom (and ignore other people). Almost all (93%) of 18-29 year old smartphone owners in the study reported using their phone at least once to avoid being bored, and 47% of young smartphone owners used their phone to avoid interacting with the people around them at least once during the study period.

Fifty-four percent of smartphone owners say that their phone is “not always needed,” while 46% say it’s something they “couldn’t live without.” 80% of smartphone owners say that their phone is worth the cost, but 19% describe it as a “financial burden.” Additionally, smartphone owners often reported that their phones made them feel productive or happy, but 57% of smartphone owners reported feeling “distracted” thanks to their phone, while 36% reported that their phone made them feel “frustrated.”

While the smartphone is the most cost-efficient choice for many Americans, Pew’s data highlights the problem of the inequality of access to information. Easing the burdens of a smartphone-dependent population could involve optimizing websites for mobile, making sure that government services and information are accessible on a smartphone, and ensuring that there are affordable options for smartphones and mobile Internet access — all in pursuit of making the smartphone a more useful source of information and communication for those who depend on it.

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