A significant number of U.S. adults -- especially younger adults, people with low income or education levels, and non-whites -- depend on their smartphones to access the Internet, according to a new study by the Pew Research Center. The study found that 7 percent of Americans use their phones to go online because they don't have broadband service or any other easily available alternatives at home.
The Pew surveys found that 64 percent of adults in the U.S. now own smartphones, a substantial increase from the 35 percent who did in 2011. While smartphone ownership rises with income and education levels, though, the research found that lower-income and less-educated adults are also increasingly dependent on their smartphones to go online. (For comparison, another recent Pew survey found that a median of 24 percent of people in emerging and developing economies own Internet-capable smartphones.)
Smartphone owners also rely heavily on their devices to conduct a variety of tasks beyond the stereotypical game-playing, shopping or listening to music. For example, 62 percent of those surveyed said they had used their phones in the past year to research specific health conditions, while 57 percent used their devices for online banking.
Other popular uses included searching real estate listings for places to live (44 percent); looking for job information (43 percent); accessing government services or information (40 percent); taking classes or accessing educational content (30 percent); and submitting job applications (18 percent).
Career, Employment Use a Surprise
We reached out to Aaron Smith, senior researcher for the Pew study, to ask what about the survey surprised the research team most.
"The biggest surprise for us is the large number of people who are using their phones to engage with career and employment resources," Smith said. "In discussions about digital divide issues and the possibility that mobile access can help bridge those divides for certain vulnerable populations (such as those with low incomes) one question that often arises is how mobile-reliant users can meaningfully engage with jobs and job resources."
Smith added, "To the best of our knowledge this is the first time anyone has gotten a direct measure of how many people are actually using smartphones for that purpose. In fact, we found this data point so interesting that we're planning to conduct some follow-up research in the spring in which we'll look at jobs and career seeking in the current digital environment in much greater detail."
To get a deeper picture of how Americans use their smartphones, Pew researchers also conducted an "experience sampling" survey of a number of device owners. This survey involved contacting survey participants twice a day for a week to ask how they had used their phones in the previous hour.
Not surprisingly, text messaging turned out to be one of the most-used smartphone applications; a full 97 percent of respondents said they had used text messaging at least once over the course of the week. On average, participants reported recently using text messaging in seven out of the 14 daily survey calls.
E-mailing via smartphones was also popular, with 88 percent of respondents saying they had used their devices at least once during the week to read or send e-mails. In fact, smartphone owners used their devices for e-mail more often than for social networking, video watching, maps or navigation.
A 'Tenuous' Link to Digital Resources
For the 7 percent of the population that has no other access to the Internet beyond their smartphones, the connection to digital resources is often tenuous, the Pew research found.
"Compared with smartphone owners who are less reliant on their mobile devices, these smartphone-dependent users are less likely to own some other type of computing device, less likely to have a bank account, less likely to be covered by health insurance, and more likely to rent or to live with a friend or family member rather than own their own home," the study noted.
This group of smartphone owners was also more likely to lose their phone service because of financial difficulties, or find themselves cut off because they had reached the maximum amount of data traffic allowed by their plans.
"Nearly half (48 percent) of smartphone-dependent Americans have had to cancel or shut off their cell phone service for a period of time because the cost of maintaining that service was a financial hardship," the report stated. "In addition, 30 percent of smartphone-dependent Americans say that they 'frequently' reach the maximum amount of data that they are allowed to consume as part of their cell phone plan, and 51 percent say that this happens to them at least occasionally. Each of these figures is substantially higher than those reported by smartphone owners with more access options at their disposal."