Numbers, Facts and Trends Shaping Your World

Younger Americans’ Library Habits and Expectations

Part 1: A portrait of younger Americans’ reading habits and technology use

Before analyzing younger Americans’ library use habits, we will first explore the broad contours of their technology use and reading habits, as the changing reading habits chronicled in our recent reports are intrinsically tied to the new formats and devices on which people read.

This section will just cover the findings from the survey conducted in November and December 2012. Unlike most other Pew Internet surveys, this one included a sizeable sample of younger respondents, including 101 respondents ages 16-17, in addition to adults ages 18 and older. 7 We included this youngest age group so that we could develop a fuller portrait of younger library users.

The vast majority of Americans ages 16-29 go online, and most have a desktop or laptop computer to use at home. Over nine in ten younger Americans own a cell phone, with the majority owning a smartphone. They are significantly more likely than adults ages 50 and older to go online and have these devices.

However, these trends do not extend to all types of gadgets; in fact, adults in their thirties and forties are significantly more likely to own tablet computers and e-readers than other age groups. This might be why rates of e-reading are generally highest among readers ages 30-49, who are also less likely to have read a print book in the last year than younger readers. Meanwhile, Americans under age 30 were just as likely to have read a book in print in 2012 as they were in 2011.

Internet use and home internet use

Younger Americans ages 16-29 are significantly more likely to use the internet than older adults. More than nine out of ten Americans ages 16-29 (96%) say they use the internet or email, compared with 82% of adults over age 30—as shown in the chart below.

03 internet access

Device ownership

In our late 2012 national survey, we found that teens and young adults continue to have high levels of ownership of mobile devices like cell phones and laptops, especially compared with adults ages 65 and older.8

04 device ownership

Some 85% of all Americans ages 16 and older own a cell phone, including more than nine in ten of those under age 30, and almost half (47%) own smartphone (including over six in ten of those under age 30).

Looking at gadget ownership or access by age group:9

  • A majority of older teens ages 16-17 own a cell phone (93%), including 63% who own a smartphone. Some 91% have a desktop or laptop computer at home. Looking at e-reading devices, we find that about one in five (21%) have an e-reader and about one in four (26%) say they have a tablet computer.10
  • Among college-aged adults ages 18-24, 94% own a cell phone (65% own a smartphone), and 82% own a computer. Some 14% own an e-reader, and 23% own a tablet.
  • Adults in their later twenties (ages 25-29) are similar to younger age groups in that they are just as likely to own a cell phone (91%) or smartphone (82%), and 82% own a desktop or laptop computer. They are also just as likely to own an e-reader (17%) or tablet computer (26%).
05 phone ownership

But while younger Americans are more likely than those ages 30 and older to have smartphones or computers, adults in their thirties and forties are the most likely to own e-readers and tablets. In fact, adults ages 30-49 are significantly more likely to own either of these devices than any other age group, with the exception of 16-17 year-olds.

06 ereader tablet ownership

Reading habits

Some 75% of all Americans ages 16 and older had read at least one book in any format in the previous 12 months, including 82% of Americans ages 16-29 (significantly more than older adults). High schoolers ages 16-17 are especially likely to have read a book in the past year (90%), while adults ages 65 and older are the least likely to have read a book in that time span (67%).

Our previous research found that younger respondents are more likely to read for work or school, or to research topics of interest to them, while older respondents are generally more likely to read for pleasure, or to keep up with current events.

07 read 1 book

According to our November 2012 national survey:

  • 67% of all Americans ages 16 and older read at least one book in the past year in print, including 75% of those under age 30—and 85% of those ages 16-17.
  • 23% of all Americans read at least one e-book, including 25% of those under age 30.
  • 13% listened to at least one audiobook, including 14% of those under age 30.11
08 book formats

Among Americans ages 16 and older who read a book in the year prior to the survey, the proportion who read a print book in that time decreased from 93% in 2011 to 89% in 2012. At the same time, e-book reading rose from 21% of readers ages 16 and older in 2011 to 30% in 2012. Audiobook listening also increased from 14% in 2011 to 17% in 2012.

As the following charts show, the proportion of younger readers who read a print book in the past year has remained relatively steady, while e-reading rose among all ages of readers—particularly those in their thirties and forties.

09 ebooks on the rise

All told, book readers under age 30 consumed a mean (average) of 13 books in the previous 12 months and a median (midpoint) of 6 books — in other words, half of book readers in that age cohort had read fewer than six and half had read more than six.

10 how many books
  1. In general, Pew Internet surveys of adults include Americans ages 18 and older, and surveys of teens include Americans ages 12-17.
  2. The most recent data available for adult ownership of all devices is available on our website and includes surveys conducted in 2013:
  3. Of course, age is not the only factor at play. We also see strong correlations by education and household income. Our recent reports on smartphone and tablet ownership among Americans adults show some of these relationships.
  4. While teens tend to “own” their cell phones/smartphones and sometimes their computers, e-reader and especially tablet numbers most likely reflect shared household use.
  5. Overall, 75% of all Americans read at least one book in any of these format in the previous 12 months. Many readers consumed books in multiple formats, which is why these numbers add up to more than 75%.

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