A Tethered World was designed to explore the information habits and dispositions of university students’ mobile phone use (consuming, sharing, reading, publishing, expressing, etc.) Three general research questions guided the study:

  • Q1. How have mobile technologies influenced the information habits of university students around the world?
  • Q2. What similarities and differences exist in university students’ use of mobile technologies for information purposes?
  • Q3. How do university students conceive of mobile technologies role in their daily lives?

Partner schools
(Click the pins for links to more information about the schools)

Participants’ origin
(Click the map to be taken to an interactive version)

Respondents by country

793 students from 8 universities on 4 continents participated in the Tethered World study. The sample represented 56 nationalities in total. Of the entire sample, 67% (n=531) were female, while 33% (n=262) were male. Over 95% of the sample population fell between the 18 – 23 year age range. 32% of the population were in their first year of study, while 43% of the sample was in the second year, 18% were in the third year, and the remaining 7% were in their fourth year of study. A majority of the majors (63%) were in the communications related fields (communication studies, public relations, journalism, media studies, film, television, radio, etc.) The remaining majors were spread across traditional academic disciplines.

The sample was stratified in scope and reach. A large majority of the sample participants came from mid-to-upper mobility backgrounds, as was expected due to the fact that they were enrolled in universities (most of which are in the top-tier ranking in their respective countries, and beyond). 60% of fathers and 59% of mothers had undergraduate and/or postgraduate university degrees. 34% of fathers and 36% of mothers completed high school degrees, while less than 7% of both demographics did not have any degrees.

In terms of general media habits, 49% of the sample reported 4-6 hours per day of Internet use, 24% reported spending 1-3 hours per day online, 19% reported 7-9 hours per day, and the remaining 8% reported spending over 10 hours per day online. Of this time online, 59% of the sample reported spending 1-3 hours per day engaged with social media, 26% reported 4-6 hours per day, 8% reported 7-9 hours, and the remaining 5% reported over 10 hours per day engaged with social media technologies. Over 90% of the sample reported having access to the Internet on their mobile phones. Only 19% own a tablet, with the highest number of tablet owners coming from Mexico City.

To read the full data analysis of the sample’s media habits, please visit the Who are the Tethered Generation.

Instruments and Procedures

In the Fall of 2011, a mobile information tracking form was built and pretested at Emerson College in Boston, Massachusetts, USA. The tracking form was designed to gather detailed data on what students do with their mobile phones over a 24-hour period. The data tracking instrument was concerned primarily with the exchange of information through the mobile phone. The amount of calling and/or talking on the phone was not tracked.

The form itself consisted of 26 prompts for the students to track, across the categories: consuming, sharing, producing. Students were asked to keep track of how many times they published content, shared links, read stories, posted status updates, etc.  Once the instrument was tested and finalized, by January 2012, it was distributed, along with a pre-survey and instructions, to the participating research institutions. Study participants were asked to administer the assignment in the spring semester 2012. All tracking forms and pre-surveys were completed between March 3 – May 15.

Students were asked to complete an online demographic and background pre-survey in class. They were then given instructions on the tracking mobile information assignment. The instructions outlined the 24-hour assignment, and included a detailed tracking sheet, which they were to use to keep track of their mobile phone use over the 24-hour period.  The instructions included a link to another online post-tracking survey, where students would enter their data after their tracking period was complete. Students had one week to track a 24-hour period.

After the tracking assignment was completed, and the data was entered into the post-tracking survey, the participants were directed to an online form which presented a cue for a reflection of the tracking experience and their overall dispositions towards mobile phones presence in their lives. The reflection form asked for them, in 500 words, to express open-ended feedback that addressed the following general questions:

Did you feel attached to your mobile device? What particular features of your mobile device do you feel most attached to? How do you think mobile devices have enhanced your daily life? What have they impacted in a negative way? Did you feel any different towards your mobile habits when you had to track them? Do you think mobile phones are a necessity in your life? What parts of them do you “need”? Do you think society is at a disadvantage without them?

Once the students completed the 500-word reflection, they submitted all of their data, and were provided a certificate of completion. Students were not provided a grade for the assignment. Some were given extra credit, or participation points, while others completed the work in the context of a larger classroom learning block.

Participants were asked to complete confidentiality forms that guaranteed anonymity and were made clear that participation in the research was optional.

Data Analysis

Upon final completion and gathering of all data, graduate students at Emerson College compiled the tracking data and analyzed the questions using Survey Monkey’s data analysis and cross tabulation software. The pre-survey provided context and demographic grounding for the sample. The tracking data was analyzed as an entire unit of data, and also compared between participating institutions.

The textual reflections were gathered into one large document and analyzed using a grounded, constructivist approach. Coders selected a sample of 80 out of the 630 total reflections gathered. They coded the responses for emerging categories (news, social media, consumption, sharing, expression, dependency, relationships) in the responses. Once the categories were determined, the coders found emerging themes that tied together the textual responses and illuminated some key foundations for understanding the dispositions and feedback of the sample towards mobile phones in their lives. Read the full responses in Student Reflections.

After the themes were identified, the data visualization software Many Eyes was used to create visual analyses of the student reflections. The software created word trees that combined key words and terms to elaborate on the findings of the tracking process, and the themes identified in the reflections. The visuals are presented to support the qualitative data found in the results of the study.


While the study did have 56 nationalities represented, we had hoped for a more diverse collection of participation institutions. This would have provided more regional diversity, and stronger numbers with which to make cross-cultural comparisons. That over 300 of the participants were from institutions the United States mitigated the ability to truly extrapolate a global vision.

Additionally, the sample were largely middle to upper class students. This is not surprising, due to the fact that all were enrolled in full four-year degree-granting institutions. However, this limits our ability to truly discuss the impact of mobile phones on populations without regard to class and status.

Timing was also a limitation of the study. Because the participating institutions all have different start and end dates for their terms and semesters, it was not possible to coordinate the timing of the 24 our tracking and reflection periods. As a result, they varied from March to May. This was a large problem, as the general ubiquity of mobile phone use limited the overall impediment of the spacing of tracking periods between institutions.

Lastly, language was also a barrier for certain parts of the study. While all students conducted the tracking and reflection in English, limitations in writing English may have limited the ability to express ideas and opinions in the reflection part of the study. Nevertheless, because the texts were coded for broad themes, key words, and categories, we feel that the main ideas expressed still emerged clearly.

Overall, the study was designed to provide an exploratory look at the influence of mobile phones on a global population of students. Despite the limitations posed by attempting to compose a global study, the findings do show trends around the world towards an increasingly, integrated, mobile, and tethered generation.