Who are the Tethered Generation?

Below is a portrait of the mobile information habits of 793 students from 8 higher education institutions around the world. The findings show a generation that has surpassed thinking about media in terms of traditional formats. Instead, the data show:

  • Students do not organize their lives around media, but organize media around their lives.
  • Mobile technologies have integrated all information types into single streams of content that students engage with in the context of your day.
  • Students are sharing content, and expressing opinions multiple times per day, every day, all day.
  • Students treat mobile applications like cable television, many channels but only a few are used on a regular basis.
  • A large gap exists between heavy and light users of social media on mobile phones, with little middle ground.

The data reflects the self-reported habits of the study sample. Students completed an online questionnaire before tracking their media use that asked them to answer a series of questions about their mobile phone functions, applications and use. The sample breaks down by institutional affiliation as follows:

1. Internet/Social Media use

In response to a broad introductory question about daily time spent on the Internet, approximately half of the sample reported 4-6 hours per day online (see Figure One). Students from the Middle East region report the highest Internet use per day followed by those from Mexico, the US and England, while students from the Eastern European region reported the lowest Internet use per day.

Figure One – Internet Use per day (hours)

When ask about time spent with social media use, approximately 58% of the sample spend 1-3 on social media per day, which corresponds to about half of all internet use reported by the participants. Here again, we see the highest numbers from students in the Middle East, and lowest numbers from the students from Eastern Europe.

Figure Two – Social Media Use Per Day (hours)

The data here reflect a commonly assumed reality of rising social media use around the world. We see students more inclined to spend time with social networks as part of their overall experience. While only 19% of the sample owned a tablet computer, most all had intentions to purchase one in time. Interestingly, the highest percentage of tablet owners came from Iberoamericana University in Mexico City.

2. Mobile Information Habits

66% percent of the sample reported using their mobile phone more than any other technology they own. Laptop computers (48%) were a clear second, while over half of the sample did not own a desktop computer any more, and almost 80% reported not owning a tablet. The iPhone operating system was clearly the most used (40%), followed by a virtual tie between Blackberry RIM (19%) and Android (19%). Only 1% of students reported using a windows platform phone, and 2% using Nokia Symbian. No other operating systems were mentioned by the sample.

While it is clear that the mobile phone is the fastest growing ubiquitous technology across the world, how students utilize it can provide keen insight into its effectiveness as an omnipotent media technology.

The study found that students are now texting and using social networking apps more frequently than talking on the phone (Figure 3). Social Networking (37%, m=3.83) and text messaging (33%, m=4.63) were more frequent than talking (31%, m=3.81) emailing (21%, m=3.42) or web browsing (20%, m=3.49). 28% (m=3.48) of the sample did report listening to music as the most frequent use of their mobile phones. Interestingly, shopping (m=2.00) and playing games (m=2.59), were not frequently used with mobile phones. This shows that while growing, they still function as communication tools more than full web substitutes.

Figure 3 – Frequency of use of mobile phones

33% of the sample reported having more than 16 apps on their mobile phones. From there an approximately even distribution flowed down to 10% reporting 1-3 apps on their phones. 15% of the sample reported not having any apps (a majority had internet capable phones, but not “smart” phones).

Much like television however, most of the participants only used 4-6 apps (40%) or 1-3 apps (34%) on a daily basis (See Figure 4). The ubiquity of the apps available, it seems, hasn’t translated into a more diverse or wide use of apps for mobile technologies. It seems as though, across the globe, social networking and texting are pervasive, and the allure of hundreds of thousands of apps does not lead to greater use of a wider range of information via mobile phones.

Figure 4 – Apps on Phone / Apps Used on a Daily Basis

As figure 5 shows, the sample did report having a wide variety of apps on their phone, but they did not utilize them for a wide variety of information needs. Students don’t use apps for a healthy information diet, but perhaps having them available provides a comfort.

Figure 5 – Types of Apps on Mobile Phones

Social networking, as mentioned above, is the fastest growing use of information across all media technologies. Concerning the use of social networking, there seems to be a chasm between heavy users and those who rarely, if ever, choose to use social networking on their mobile phones (see Figure 6). Students reported updating their status either more than once a day or several times a week. Then, there is a sizable gap between consistent use and rare use. Students show no passive or occasional social media use.

Students also use social media most frequently to comment on others posts, updates, and shared content. This is slightly more than sharing and publishing self content. The phone for the tethered generation seems to not only be a place for connection and communication, but also an extension of the social mediasphere, where students are engaging in the many-to-many, large scale interactivity that social media amplifies. While there is little in between the heavy and light social media users on the mobile phone, it is clear that the phone is extending into all facets of the social life of university students in this study.

Figure 6 – Posting, Sharing, Commenting with Mobile Phones

Finally, the sample showed a greater than anticipated propensity to consume news on mobile devices (Figure 7).  58% of participants reported consuming news on their phones more than once a day, once a day, or several times a week. This number is larger than most traditional measures read in specific countries. The population of the sample (university students, primarily in communication fields) skews the outcome, but it is still encouraging, considering the vast attention given to social media on mobile technologies.

Overall, the tethered generation has integrated all media habits into one platform, while at the same time diversifying the scope and breadth of information engagement. The intent of the data above is to integrate a global sample of university students into a common framework and to tease out any insights and commonalities that we see with mobile phone use around the world.

It is clear that regardless of geographic location, university students are quickly and diligently incorporating mobile technologies and social networks for all of their needs and responsibilities.This holds vast consequences for the future of participatory democracy in a mobile world.