As I’ve said before, consumers crave mobile. Everywhere you turn these days, you can see people consulting their mobile devices while shopping, eating, walking, waiting . . . even while sitting side-by- side with friends, each on his or her own phone. Is this devotion—obsession?—to smartphones and tablets simply a harmless sign of the times, or could it have larger, perhaps even unhealthy, social and cultural implications?
Earlier this year, Salzburg Global Seminar tracked the mobile activity of college students over a 24-hour period. Interestingly, this research revealed that many in this age group appeared to be actually tethered to their phones, literally unable in many cases to put them down.
Moreover, this attachment to mobile devices by those in their late teens and early twenties is not confined to a particular country or even hemisphere. Researchers found that the behaviors were universal; the study included more than 800 students from eight universities on three different continents and representing 52 nationalities.
Other key findings included:
- Despite having a wide variety of apps to choose from, the overwhelming majority of young people only use a handful of them, with Twitter and Facebook clearly their top choices.
- Students tend to spend much more time sharing and commenting on information on their devices rather than consuming it.
- Young adults use texting and social media platforms for communication more than they use email.
- Students of all nationalities were inclined to perform the same kinds of tasks on their smartphones, creating what the study called a “homogenizing influence” across nations and continents.
Beyond the similarities of how and why young adults use their mobile devices, there were also shared social, emotional and psychological feelings expressed by many in the study. After having their mobile activities monitored for 24 hours, the students were asked, “How have mobile technologies changed the information habits of a tethered world?” Many of their responses frequently contained comparable feelings and experiences—particularly in terms of how important a part their smartphones and tablets play in their daily lives.
Here are some of the students’ realizations about how truly tethered they are to their devices, often echoed in the answers of other students a half a world away:
“I feel naked, lonely, lost without my phone.”
“When I am without it, it is like I lost my arm.”
“My phone provides me with (shallow) feelings of connectivity and being loved or attended to.”
“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.”
Many respondents also admitted that they used their devices either to shield them from real world challenges, or connect them to a virtual world that they felt more a part of than the one they live in:
“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.”
“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.”
”My phone and all of its features has become a social crutch – a mindless distraction.”
Whether or not these trends among digital natives become a matter of significant social concern is yet to be seen. Each previous generation has had its own challenges adjusting to technological advances, so in some ways this in nothing new. That said, it certainly seems as though mobile devices are poised to have an increasingly dramatic, global impact on our social, cultural and economic interactions.