I constantly check my phone for messages even though it does not ring or vibrate. I constantly look over and stare at my phone to check for that blinking light, and I cannot help it. I do it all the time, every day, and that is no exaggeration.
After students completed a demographic and mobile habits survey, they were provided a form and instructed to track all mobile phone use over a 24-hour period. They tallied stories read, texts sent and received, social media posts and status updates, shared links, web sites visited, and so on.
What emerges below is a portrait of a generation that has built such dependency on their mobile phones that they often have trouble separating mobile phone use from their physical lives. Some key insights from the data reveal:
- Mobile phones are in our subconscious
- I find myself unconsciously picking up my phone, praying for a text message or mention on Twitter to take me to a virtual world where there are no math problems and there are hundreds of other people not paying attention in class.
- Because I am on my phone, I will not pay attention to the people around me or especially the traffic around me. I feel like my mobile device often takes me out of the real world and into a completely different one.
- The connection is so strong it’s become a reflex
- When I wake up, the first thing that I do is grab my mobile and start to text or check my social networks.
- I was shocked at how literally everything I do revolves around it and how often I go in my pocket to see if I have any new messages.
- My phone and all of its features has become a social crutch – a mindless distraction.
- Anxiety over being excluded has grown
- There are moments through the day when I feel sad or bored or anxious, and instinctively I look for my iPhone and start to tap anywhere, even re-checking applications twice in less than half an hour.
- I am very diligent about returning wall posts, tweets, comments and other feeds that are on my phone. Without this ability, I think it would stress me out or make me anxious about not knowing what is going on.
The following data show the results of nearly 800 students who tracked their mobile habits over a period of 24-hours, revealing a narrow but deep dependency on their mobile devices.
Despite the plethora of tools, apps, spaces, and platforms that mobile technologies offer students, overwhelming evidence showed that:
- Facebook and Twitter are the most globally dominant tools used on mobile phones.
- Twitter surpasses Facebook for the most heavy mobile phone users.
- Pinterest is on the rise, while LinkedIn is fast fading among younger generations.
Figure 1a presents a word cloud which aggregated all the times that social media tools were mentioned in the tracking data. Facebook and Twitter dominate, while the only other registered tools are Google+ and Pinterest. The sample rarely went beyond the dominant two social media tools for all of their mobile information needs and uses in a 24-hour period. This reinforces the literal rise of social networks for all media habits and needs. Figure 1b shows the frequency of log ins to social network sites per day on mobile phones. Once again, Facebook and Twitter clearly dominate the landscape.
FIgure 1a – Aggregated mention of social media tools during 24-hour tracking.
Figure 1b – Frequency of logging into social media tools via cell phone
The tracking forms also showed a regularity in posting and commenting on other posts on social networks through the mobile phone. Again, Facebook dominated in sharing content over a 24-hour period, while Twitter was used for sharing by heavy mobile phone users. The data did show a slight preference for personal expression over commenting on others information. This reinforces data that links to more inward and self-preferential behaviors on social networks.
Regardless of place or location, students around the world are using their phones, and one or two tools, to let their social and peer circles know what they are doing, how, when, and why. They also find time in their day to share and express around others’ content. The disposition in humans to express and be part of communities seems to manifest itself through the mobile phone.
Figure 2a – Sharing content on mobile phones
Figure 2b – Commenting on peer content via mobile phone
The tracking form also asked students to record how many times they consumed information, and from which platforms on their phones. The results show that while apps are predominantly for sharing, they are not the main way students consume information (see Figures 3a and 3b). Students across all frequencies reported using web browsers for reading stories and consuming information. This correlates with the predominance of social networks on mobile phones. Beyond texting, it seems that students use apps for sharing and socializing, but still use web browsers for consuming/reading.
Figure 3b confirms the use of social networks as shared spaces. Email is still a more common way of sharing content than text messaging, which is primarily reserved for personal communication. Nevertheless, email remains a fading option for personal communication, and sharing information, as study participants ranked it below social networks, texting, and calling as their preferred method for personal and public communication.
Figure 3a – Reading information on mobile phones
Figure 3b – Reading shared information on mobile phones
Over a 24-hour period, students reported using apps for high frequency sharing but used web sites for passive sharing of links and ideas (i.e. blogs, youtube, etc.). Outside of apps, the sharing was infrequent, but consistent.
Figure 4a – Frequency of Sharing content via mobile phone
Students reported using very little location-based applications on their mobile phones. Facebook and Twitter were again predominant (See Figure 5a), but these results show that the presence of a mobile phone does not necessitate sharing physical presence. Perhaps, in the wake of data tracking by companies, and internet safety issues in general, the sample did not see the need to share location details at many points in the 24-hour period.
Figure 5a – Frequency of location-based applications on mobile phones
Finally, in terms of consuming shared content, social media again reigns supreme. Over the 24-hour period, students reported sharing visual content (e.g. photos, links to videos) most frequently through social media, followed by text messages and finally email (See Figure 6a). This shows the shift from a personal sharing situation to a social sharing situation. Mobile phones have extended communities into the pockets of the tethered generation.
Figure 6a – Consuming Shared Visual Content on Mobile Phones
Tracking student data over a 24-hour period shows that, on an average day, university students aren’t doing too many different and unique things on their phone, but they are connected more often than not, and they can’t stop.
What was perhaps most revealing about the the tracking process was the presence of mobile phones in the lives of young students around the world. It seemed as if the students were tethered not by a need to explicitly do anything on their phone, but by a need to feel “connected” to some larger community that mobile technologies reflect.
The data show that the potential for stronger community, more diverse information platforms, and more active civic participation are present within the lives of the digital generation. Across the sample of this study, general patterns show a more diverse and dynamic emergence of information use on mobile phones. But, students still noted how their phones impeded purposeful information habits because their primary use is still for real-time and personal communication.
The implications of the study (explained in the Implications – Media Literacy page) provide key recommendations for building media literacy approaches to empowering the next generation of global citizens through more purpose-driven mobile information uses and interactions. These may help to transform the tethered generation into a generation of active, participatory, and empowered citizens.