US Smartphone Ownership and Leading Activities

April 6, 2015

This article is included in these additional categories:

African-American | Boomers & Older | Digital | Email | Hispanic | Household Income | Men | Mobile Phone | Social Media | Video | Women | Youth & Gen X

Pew-Smartphone-Ownership-by-Demo-Apr2015Some 64% of American adults owned a smartphone as of December 2014, details a recent report [pdf] from the Pew Research Project’s Internet & American Life Project. Predictably, that figure was higher among the 18-29 (85%) and 30-49 (79%) age groups, as it was among college-educated and higher-income survey respondents. But, those with low household incomes and levels of educational attainment are more reliant on their smartphones for internet access.

The study notes that 7% of adults own a smartphone but don’t have any other form of broadband access at home besides their data plan and say they have a limited number of options for going online other than their phone. The percentage of “smartphone-dependent” adults is higher among those with household incomes of less than $30k per year (13%) and those with a high school diploma or less (9%). A significant 15% of 18-29-year-olds also fall into the “smartphone-dependent” group, as do 12% of African-Americans and 13% of Hispanics.

These groups are also the most likely to have canceled or shut off their service for a period of time because maintaining it was a financial burden. Indeed, 37% of smartphone owners – including 48% of 18-29-year-olds and 49% of Hispanics – report reaching the maximum amount of data allowed occasionally or frequently, and 27% of device owners (32% of 18-29-year-olds and 34% of Hispanics) at least occasionally face monthly bills that are much higher than they expected.

Overall, 48% of “smartphone-dependent” adults have had to cancel or suspend service due to financial constraints (versus 21% of other smartphone owners).

In terms of costs, the report finds that roughly two-thirds of smartphone owners belong to a group plan, with the majority of respondents fully responsible for those bills typically paying $100-200 per month for the plan. Among the 29% on an individual plan, a plurality 43% pay between $50 and $100 per month.

Turning to the types of activities that smartphone users perform, the study finds that 62% have used their device during the past year to look up information about a health condition, and 57% have used it for online banking. (More on mobile finance here.) Those figures are significantly higher among younger owners, a majority of whom also at least occasionally use their devices for activities such as turn-by-turn navigation and following breaking news.

In a week-long survey of smartphone owners that tracked their activities on a daily basis, Pew discovered that text messaging (97%) is the most popular feature, followed by voice/video calls (92%), internet (89%) and email (88%). Half used them to watch video and 41% to listen to music or podcasts. While text messaging, calls and email use were broadly consistent among age groups, 18-29-year-olds were significantly more likely than those aged 50 and older to be found using their devices to access the internet (97% vs. 80%), use social networks (91% vs. 55%), watch video (75% vs. 31%) and listen to music or podcasts (64% vs. 21%).

It’s worth noting that the most common place to use smartphones is in the home, with 99% of owners tracked using their phone there at least once over the course of the 14 surveys conducted during the week-long period. At least half also used their device at least once while in a car or public transit (82%), at work (69%), while waiting in line (53%) at a community place (51%) and walking from place to place (50%). As has been found in previous research, boredom is a key reason for using smartphones, with 77% of owners tracked using their device to avoid being bored at some point during the week-long period.

Most of the smartphone users tracked credited their device with making them feel productive (79%) and happy (77%), though 57% said their device made them feel distracted and 36% frustrated at least once.

Somewhat surprisingly given the extent to which smartphone owners use them, only 46% said they couldn’t live without their device, as opposed to the 54% who said they are not always needed. Still, respondents were far more likely to say that their device represents “freedom” (70%) rather than a “leash” (30%), and 80% said it is “worth the cost” rather than being a “financial burden.”

About the Data: Basic findings on smartphone ownership and demographics within the U.S. adult population are based on telephone surveys conducted December 4-7 and 18-21, 2014 among 2,002 adults. These figures for overall smartphone ownership/usage were collected via telephone survey to make them consistent with past Pew Research Center measurements of smartphone adoption. The margin of error for the total sample of 2,002 adults is plus or minus 2.5 percentage points.

Findings about how smartphone owners use their phones are drawn from the October wave of the American Trends Panel, conducted October 3-27, 2014 among 3,181 respondents (2,875 by Web and 306 by mail), including 2,188 smartphone owners. The margin of sampling error for the total sample of 2,188 smartphone owners is plus or minus 2.7 percentage points.

Data about how smartphone owners use their phones over the course of one week is taken from the American Trends Panel “experience sampling” survey, conducted November 10-16, 2014 among 1,635 respondents. Respondents were asked to complete two surveys per day for seven days (14 in total), using either an app they had installed on their phone (n=697) or by completing a web survey (n=938). All findings are based on respondents who completed 10 or more surveys over the course of the week-long study period (n=1,035). The margin of sampling error for smartphone owners who completed 10 or more surveys is plus or minus 4.0 percentage points.

For more details on methodology, visit the report at the link provided above.

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