Teens and technology: Is mobile the right tool or the only tool available?


Pew Internet and American Life released a new report this week on teens’ use of technology and the Internet. I’m always interested in these reports – both because of my obvious interest in broadband but also because after a big birthday in February I am now the proud keeper of two teens. And as of this week they each have an iPhone.

Here are some of the broadband highlights from the report…

  • 95% of teens are online, a percentage that has been consistent since 2006.
  • One in four teens (23%) have a tablet computer, a level comparable to the general adult population.
  • Nine in ten (93%) teens have a computer or have access to one at home. Seven in ten (71%) teens with home computer access say the laptop or desktop they use most often is one they share with other family members.

I’m impressed by 95 percent of teens being online – although that is a huge wake up call to the five percent who aren’t. It would be interesting to know why those teens aren’t online. Yesterday Connect Minnesota released a report on Minnesota adoption. They found reasons that most Minnesotans who aren’t online have stayed offline. The top answers are:

  • Don’t want it (19 percent)
  • Broadband fees are expensive (13 percent)
  • No content worth viewing (13 percent)

Since I just saw my teen send SnapChat pictures to a friend on the whole drive home from dinner last night – I can’t believe the bar for ”cotent worth viewing” is that high with teens. You wonder if it’s cost or access or parents’ decision. The bigger question is how do we prepare those teens to use the technology their peers take for granted?

There were also range of statistics on cellphone use by teens:

  • 78% of teens now have a cell phone, and almost half (47%) of those own smartphones. That translates into 37% of all teens who have smartphones, up from just 23% in 2011.
  • About three in four (74%) teens ages 12-17 say they access the internet on cell phones, tablets, and other mobile devices at least occasionally.
  • One in four teens are “cell-mostly” internet users — far more than the 15% of adults who are cell-mostly. Among teen smartphone owners, half are cell-mostly.
  • Older girls are especially likely to be cell-mostly internet users; 34% of teen girls ages 14-17 say they mostly go online using their cell phone, compared with 24% of teen boys ages 14-17. This is notable since boys and girls are equally likely to be smartphone owners.
  • Among older teen girls who are smartphone owners, 55% say they use the internet mostly from their phone.

So now I have the data to contrast my teens’ whining that they were the only ones in the world without smartphones – but I have to admit 37 percent is pretty impressive. I’m intrigued by 25 percent of teens being cell-mostly internet users. I get that 71 percent share a computer at home, which makes it harder to use the laptop or desktop, but that number still surprises me. And I wonder if it is because their cell use is virtually constant through the day so that any other time spent on a traditional computer seems brief? Or is the cell use replacing traditional use?

For me the difficulty with smartphone/cell-only (or mostly) access has been my difficulty understanding how someone could get their “work” done on a smartphone. For example – I don’t want to read a Pew Report, cross reference other studies or type out this blog post on my smartphone. I do want my smartphone for directions (maps and occasional how-to videos), contact management, easy communication (Facebook, Twitter, text), music while I workout, ready reference, comparison shopping; some of those activities are work related.

The big question to me – for teens and others who choose cell/smartphone access – are we doing things differently? (Do they find a smartphone sufficient for research and writing?) Is the “work” changing? For example are people watching videos instead of reading reports and are they commenting via video? Because I’d choose a smartphone for that work too.

Do they choose smartphones because it’s the right tool for the job or because it’s the only tool available?