April 29, 2015

For vast majority of seniors who own one, a smartphone equals ‘freedom’

Smartphone AttitudesWhen it comes to tech adoption, seniors generally lag behind their younger counterparts. But for Americans ages 65 and older who own a smartphone, having one in their pocket is a liberating experience.

Asked if they feel that their phone represents “freedom” or “a leash,” 82% of smartphone-owning seniors described their phone as freeing, compared with 64% of those ages 18 to 29. By contrast, 36% of adult smartphone owners under the age of 30 described their phone as a leash, double the 18% of adults ages 65 and older who chose this term to describe their phone.

Similarly, when asked to describe their smartphone as “connecting” or “distracting,” older users are significantly more likely to choose “connecting” as the best descriptor. On the other hand, younger smartphone users are twice as likely as older adults to view their phone as “distracting” (37% vs. 18%).

Our survey did not directly ask why users chose the terms that they did, but differences in usage patterns may play a role. Younger adults tend to use their phones for a far wider range of purposes (especially social networking and multimedia content) and are much more likely to turn to their phone as a way to relieve boredom and to avoid others around them.

Older adults, by contrast, tend to use their phones for a narrower range of purposes – especially basic communication functions such as voice calling, texting and email. For young adults, smartphones are often the device through which they filter both the successes and annoyances of daily life – which could help explain why these users are more likely to report feeling emotions about their phone ranging from happy and grateful to frustrated or angry during a weeklong survey.

It is true, overall, that older Americans are less likely to be online, have broadband at home or own a mobile device. The same applies to smartphones: Only a quarter (27%) of adults ages 65 and older own them, compared with 85% of 18- to 29-year-olds, according to a Pew Research Center report released earlier this month.

A previous Pew Research study found that lower adoption rates of new technologies are often related to barriers seniors face when adopting them. These include medical conditions that make it difficult for older Americans to use certain technologies or devices. Skepticism about the benefits of technology and lack of digital literacy are other deterrents cited by older adults.

But that’s not to say older Americans aren’t broadening their digital experiences. In 2014, for the first time, more than half of online seniors indicated that they use Facebook: 56% of online adults ages 65 and older do so, up from 45% a year earlier. Internet use and broadband adoption continue to climb among older adults, and although there remains a wide age gap in smartphone ownership, the proportion of older adults who own a smartphone has increased by 8 percentage points since early 2014. Plus, older Americans who are internet adopters tend to have highly positive attitudes about the impact of online access on their lives, including the access that smartphones give them.

Topics: Technology Adoption, Internet Activities

  1. Photo of Monica Anderson

    is a research associate focusing on internet, science and technology at Pew Research Center.


  1. Fred Summers2 years ago

    I think that the ease of use for smartphones is helping their use among seniors. The Iphone especially has helped bridge that gap of technology for seniors. Quite a few of my grandparents would never touch a computer but have and use tablets frequently. That might be why they see it as freeing because while before they wouldn’t use a computer now they can access the internet. Teaching and helping more seniors see the difference will encourage more use. itok.net/66-seniors-dont-get-hel…

  2. Jean2 years ago

    I just had a month long struggle with a third party sprint store over an insufferable with a bad battery. I’ve been a good sprint customer for about 10+- years. The problem wasn’t sprint but young staff who didn’t want to talk to the old woman. They ended up replacing my cell and totally botched the transfer of data. All the while they were missing a potential sale.

    The real problem is that the sales force/tech support is always young and only speaks geek, while the boomers are the largest population group in the U.S., and we’re getting sick, on prescriptions, and need a LOT more attention to detail, and explanation. This devide between young geek and needy boomers will grow with time.

    So which cellphone company is ready to adjust to the needs of the elderly and disabled?