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Smartphones bridge, worsen the digital divide: Pew report

by: Amy Gahran |

Nearly two-thirds of Americans now own a smartphone, and nearly 20% rely on their smartphones to some extent for internet access. However, this connection to key digital resources is complicated by financial stress, data caps, and technical problems, exacerbating the digital divide -- according to a new Knight-funded report from the Pew Research Center.

In The Smartphone Difference, published today, Pew examines the increasingly important role that smartphones play in helping Americans access, share, and create information and communicate with others. This research is valuable for anyone seeking to inform, engage or serve communities via mobile devices -- especially for low-income or otherwise marginalized communities.

The Pew report highlights the often fragile financial and technical circumstances of people who rely heavily on their smartphones for internet access. Pew found that "10% of Americans own a smartphone but do not have broadband at home, and 15% own a smartphone but say that they have a limited number of options for going online other than their cell phone. Those with relatively low income and educational attainment levels, younger adults, and non-whites are especially likely to be smartphone-dependent."

According to Pew, "Nearly half of smartphone-dependent Americans have had to cancel or shut off their cell phone service for a period of time because the cost of maintaining that service was a financial hardship. In addition, 30% of smartphone-dependent Americans say that they frequently reach the maximum amount of data that they are allowed to consume as part of their cell phone plan, and 51% say that this happens to them at least occasionally."

Being at high risk of losing smartphone internet access can deepen the cycle of poverty, since "lower-income and smartphone-dependent users are especially likely to turn to their phones for navigating job and employment resources. 63% of 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."

Smartphones are a key news and community info tool -- one that works both ways. Among the general population, Pew found that 68% of smartphone owners follow breaking news on their phone. Nearly as many people (67%) use their phone "to share pictures, videos, or commentary about events happening in their community -- with 35% doing so frequently."

Smartphones are an increasingly effective way to keep seniors informed. According to Pew, 40% of smartphone owners ages 65 and older "use their phone at least occasionally to keep up with breaking news, half use it to share information about local happenings, and about a third use it to stay abreast of events and activities in their community."

However, younger Americans are more likely to use their smartphone as a tool to disconnect from the people around them. Nearly half of smartphone users age 18-29 report that they have "used their phone to avoid interacting with the people around them at least once during the study period -- roughly three times the proportion of older smartphone owners who did so."

One special aspect of Pew's research for this report is that it included "experience sampling," in which respondents were asked to complete two surveys per day for one week and describe how they had used their phone in the hour prior to taking the survey. Pew notes, "This produces a unique and intimate portrait of smartphone usage -- the apps and features that are used most frequently, the locations where smartphone use is most prevalent, and the benefits and emotions that smartphones inspire."

This research technique revealed that "smartphone usage often produces feelings of productivity and happiness, but that many users also feel distracted or frustrated after mobile screen encounters."

This 61-page report also offers current statistics on the popularity of various key smartphone activities, such as texting, social media, web browsing and e-mail -- as well as in-depth details on nearly every aspect of how Americans use smartphones.

Amy Gahran

Amy Gahran is a journalist, editor, trainer, entrepreneur, strategist, and media consultant based in Boulder, Colorado. In addition to writing
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