Smartphones often serve as a go-to source for staying informed about breaking news and community happenings, getting from place to place, conducting transactions, and navigating life events such as finding a new job or getting information about a health condition. This chapter of the report looks in more detail at the specific activities that smartphone owners engage in, and the types of information that they seek out on their mobile devices.
Smartphone owners use their phones to access a wide range of services and information
One key objective of this study was to determine the extent to which smartphone owners turn to their phones to access services or information pertaining to important life events, such as applying for a job, addressing a health issue, or finding a new place to live. The survey asked whether or not they had accessed several different types of information or services within the past year using their cell phone, and found that:
- 62% of smartphone owners have used their phone in the last year to look up information about a health condition.
- 57% have used their phone to do online banking.
- 44% have used their phone to look up real estate listings or other information about a place to live.
- 43% to look up information about a job.
- 40% to look up government services or information.
- 30% to take a class or get educational content.
- 18% to submit a job application.
Lower income and smartphone-dependent users rely especially heavily on their smartphones for job and employment resources
Lower-income and higher-income smartphone owners obtain certain types of information (health, education, or government content, for example) on their phone at similar rates, and higher-income users are a bit more likely to use their phone for real estate searches or to engage in online banking. However, lower-income users are substantially more likely to utilize their phone when seeking out and applying for jobs.
Compared with smartphone owners from households earning $75,000 or more per year, smartphone owners from households earning less than $30,000 annually are nearly twice as likely to use their phone to look for information about a job—and more than four times as likely to use their phone to actually submit a job application. Just 7% of smartphone owners from higher-income households have applied for a job using their phone in the last year, but 32% of smartphone owners from lower-income households have done so.
Similarly, “smartphone-dependent” users (that is, the 9% of smartphone owners who lack another form of high-speed access, and also have limited internet access options besides their smartphone) are much more likely than other smartphone owners to utilize their phone as part of a job search. Some 63% of these smartphone-dependent users have gotten job information on their phone in the last year, and 39% have used their phone to submit a job application.
Younger adults use their smartphones to access a wide range of services and content
Where lower-income and smartphone-dependent users stand out primarily when it comes to using their phone for job resources and information, young adults incorporate mobile devices into a host of information seeking and transactional behaviors at a higher level than older users.
Three-quarters of 18-29 year old smartphone owners have used their phone in the last year to get information about a health condition; seven-in-ten have used their phone to do online banking or to look up information about job; 44% have consumed educational content on their phone; and 34% have used their phone to apply for a job. In each instance, these young adults are significantly more likely than smartphone owners in other age groups to use their phone for these reasons.
Nearly one-in-three smartphone owners frequently use their phone for navigation or turn-by-turn driving directions; one-in-ten use it frequently for public transit information
Smartphones play an important role in helping their owners navigate their environment and get where they need to go, especially as a mobile GPS for real-time driving directions:
- 67% of smartphone owners use their phone at least occasionally for turn-by-turn navigation while driving, with 31% saying that they do this “frequently.”
- 25% use their phone at least occasionally to get public transit information, with 10% doing this “frequently.”
- 11% use their phone at least occasionally to reserve a taxi or car service. Just 4% do so frequently, and 72% of smartphone owners never use their phone for this purpose.
Each of these behaviors is especially prevalent among younger smartphone owners. Fully 80% of smartphone owners ages 18-29 use their phone at least occasionally for turn-by-turn driving directions; 38% do so to get public transit information; and 17% do so to reserve a taxi or car service. Each of these is substantially higher than among smartphone owners in other age groups, although turn-by-turn driving assistance is relatively common across a range of ages.
Whites, blacks, and Latinos are equally likely to use their smartphones for turn-by-turn driving directions and to reserve a taxi or car service, but African American and Latino smartphone owners look up public transit information on their phone at much higher rates than whites do (37% of black smartphone owners, 30% of Latinos, and 21% of whites do this at least on occasion).
Residents of the transit-dense Northeast are also especially likely to access public transit information on a smartphone. Fully 41% of smartphone owners who live in the Northeast get public transit information on their phone at least occasionally, with 19% doing so “frequently.” By contrast, just 23% of westerners — and 20% of Midwesterners and southerners — use their phone for this purpose at least occasionally, and roughly six-in-ten Midwesterners and Southerners say that they “never” use their phone to navigate public transit.
A majority of smartphone owners use their phone to follow along with breaking news, and to share and be informed about happenings in their local community
A substantial majority of smartphone owners use their phone to follow along with news events near and far, and to share details of local happenings with others:
- 68% of smartphone owners use their phone at least occasionally to follow along with breaking news events, with 33% saying that they do this “frequently.”
- 67% use their phone to share pictures, videos, or commentary about events happening in their community, with 35% doing so frequently.
- 56% use their phone at least occasionally to learn about community events or activities, with 18% doing this “frequently.”
Using smartphones to keep up with breaking news, and to share or learn about local happenings, are each common across a relatively wide range of demographic groups. Smartphone owners age 65 and older are among the groups that are least likely to engage in these behaviors; even so, four in ten older smartphone owners use their phone at least occasionally to keep up with breaking news, while half use them to share information about local happenings, and one third use them to stay abreast of events and activities in their community.
In addition, some 8% of smartphone owners use their phone at least occasionally to make a monetary donation to a charitable or political cause. Just 2% do so frequently, and 77% of smartphone owners say that they never use their phone for this purpose. Overall there are very few demographic differences when it comes to using one’s smartphone to make a political or charitable contribution.
17% of smartphone owners have used their phone to report a problem in their neighborhood
Along with using their phone to share and keep up with neighborhood happenings, 17% of smartphone owners have used their phone to report a problem in their neighborhood (such as a pothole or missing street sign) to the local authorities.
Those with some college education or a college degree are more likely to have done this with their phone than those who have not attended college (20% vs. 12%), and usage of smartphones for this purpose is more common among 50-64 year olds (22% have done so) than among those ages 18-29 (14%) or 65 and older (13%).
Half of smartphone owners have used their phone to get help in an emergency situation
Fully 53% of smartphone owners indicate that they have been in an emergency situation where having their phone available helped resolve the situation.3 Smartphone owners in various demographic groups have encountered this situation at relatively high rates, although younger owners are especially likely to have used their phone in an emergency (59% of 18-29 year old smartphone owners have experienced this).
When asked to describe a recent emergency in which having a smartphone proved helpful, scenarios involving cars or driving were by far the most commonly-mentioned situation: 50% of those who have used their phone to resolve an emergency said that their recent experience involved a car accident, flat tire, roadside assistance, or other automotive emergency. These are a few representative quotes from their responses:
- “A car accident happened right in front of me and both drivers involved in the accident did not have their cell phones with them.”
- “Car broke down on freeway. Used my cell to call AAA and to obtain rental car, where they picked me up right there on the freeway. I also called a garage to arrange repairs to my vehicle.”
- “Got a flat tire in the middle of the interstate, called AAA and looked up nearest store to replace the tire.”
- “I had a flat tire on the freeway at night, without my cell phone I would have been terrified.”
An additional 14% of those who have been helped by their smartphone in an emergency said that they witnessed or experienced a potential crime and used their phone to get help or notify the authorities, while 8% described a recent experience in which their phone was helpful in a medical emergency.
44% of smartphone owners have had a problem doing something they needed to do because they didn’t have their phone with them
Reliance on smartphones can also have an unintended downside, as 44% of smartphone owners have experienced a situation in which they had a hard time accomplishing some sort of task because they did not happen to have their cell phone with them.4 When asked to describe a recent time that this happened to them, the largest group (representing 25% of those who have experienced the situation) mentioned having trouble getting somewhere because they didn’t have their phone to look up an address or get directions.
Here are some quotes from people in this situation:
- “I was going somewhere for the first time and needed a GPS system, but I had left my phone at home.”
- “Finding the location of a business when staying in a new town.”
- “I left my cell behind and ran into a detour in an unfamiliar area while low on gas. I had to find my way without a map or my phone for the first time in many years.”
- “I was trying to use the Chicago public transit system to travel from a restaurant back to a friend’s apartment. I would usually use my cell phone to get directions.”
- “I’m a chauffeur for a limousine business in a suburban county. If I don’t have my cell phone with me I cannot find a lot of the places that I need to go because I use it for my navigation.”
- “Left to pick up take out, knew general location of restaurant but assumed I could use phone to find exact spot when close. Drove around for a long time before finding it.”
Another 13% mentioned how they have had trouble coordinating with other people because they didn’t have their cell phone handy:
- “I couldn’t let someone know I would be late for an appointment.”
- “I did not know where my son was and had no way to be in touch with him to see if he was OK.”
- “Needing to find my child in a crowded store.”
- “Did not know when or where to meet my ride, because I was accustomed to having them call me when it was time to pick me up.”
- “I couldn’t tell my boss I was running late due to traffic.”
One in ten (9%) described being unable to look up a specific piece of online information, and 9% mentioned a situation in which they needed to access their calendar, address book, or email but didn’t have their phone available:
- “Couldn’t find the answer to a group question.”
- “Needed to look up a medical condition on Google but phone was not available.”
- “I couldn’t enter a concert because my ticket could only be scanned by the barcode from a phone.”
- “Couldn’t look up severe weather conditions/forecast when in wilderness.”
- “I rely on my phone for keeping track of the time of my appointments.”
- “I was unable to see my calendar and couldn’t tell if I already had an appointment for that time when trying to make another.”
- “Trying to check and return a work email on the road.”
- “My phone truly is an extension of me and assists me in performing various tasks.”
Shopping-related issues are also relatively common, as 6% described having trouble shopping without their phone — either because their shopping list was on the phone itself, because they needed to call someone for assistance, or because they wanted to look up additional information on a product while they were in the store:
- “I wasn’t able to make an informed decision on purchasing an item because I couldn’t compare prices.”
- “I forgot my phone at home and when I got to the store I couldn’t remember everything I was supposed to be getting, so it took two trips to get what I needed.”
- “Grocery shopping — did not have access to my grocery list and left my cell phone on the table as I left the house. UGH!!!”
- “I was at the store and wanted to check if my spouse needed anything, but had forgotten my phone so could not contact him.”
How smartphone owners view their phones: freeing, connecting, helpful, and generally worth the cost — but not always essential
When asked how they feel about their phones, smartphone owners paint a generally positive picture — connecting rather than distracting, helpful rather than frustrating, and ultimately worth the cost of ownership. But despite these benefits, users are fairly evenly divided on whether or not their phone is an essential component of their lives that they could not possibly live without.
The survey presented smartphone owners with a series of phrases that might describe their phone, and asked them to choose the one that most closely matches how they themselves feel. The choices presented to them, and their responses to those choices, are discussed in more detail below.
“Not always needed” vs. “Couldn’t live without” — Smartphone owners are nearly evenly divided on this question; 54% say that their phone is “not always needed,” while 46% say that it is something they “couldn’t live without.” Women and African Americans have higher than average levels of attachment: half of female smartphone owners (52%) say that their phone is something that they couldn’t live without (compared with 39% of men), as do 57% of African American smartphone owners (compared with 46% of whites).
Interestingly, responses to this question are not correlated with whether or not someone has plentiful access options beyond their cell phone. Some 49% of smartphone-dependent Americans say that their phone is “something they couldn’t live without,” nearly identical to the 46% of users with more plentiful access options who say the same. Indeed, there are a notable lack of differences between smartphone-dependent users and other smartphone owners across all of these choice pairs.
“Freedom” vs. “Leash” — A substantial majority of smartphone owners (70%) feel that their phone represents “freedom,” while 30% feel that it represents a “leash.” Older adults are actually more likely than younger users to find their smartphones freeing: 78% of smartphone owners over the age of 50 say that their phone represents “freedom,” compared with 66% of those ages 18-49. Similarly, 34% of 18-49 year olds say that their phone represents a “leash” (compared with 21% of those 50 and older).
“Connecting” vs. “Distracting” — As with the “freedom” vs. “leash” choice pair, a substantial majority of smartphone owners (by a 72% to 28% margin) feel that their phone is “connecting” rather than “distracting.” This question also exhibits a relatively pronounced age split, with younger adults being more likely to describe their phone as “distracting.” Some 37% of 18-29 year olds selected the “distracting” option, compared with 29% of 30-49 year olds and 18% of those 50 and older.
“Helpful” vs. “Annoying” — Fully 93% of smartphone owners describe their phone as “helpful,” while just 7% feel that “annoying” is a better descriptor. There is very little variation in the responses to this question, as every demographic group chooses “helpful” by an overwhelming margin.
“Worth the cost” vs. “Financial burden” — A substantial majority of smartphone owners (80%) describe their phone as “worth the cost,” although one-in-five (19%) describe it as a “financial burden.” There is relatively little variation across demographic groups on this question, although users with expensive service plans are more likely to say that the cost of maintaining their service is a financial burden. Fully 29% of those who pay more than $200 per month for their cell phone service describe their plan as a financial burden, compared with 16% of users whose plan costs less than $100 per month.