1.5 How Different Generations View the Smartphone

by Ric Epley

A smartphone, in the most basic definition, is a mobile phone device that can perform several functions of a computer. Smartphones are mainly characterized by a touchscreen interface instead of keypads, they have internet access, and they are also fitted with an operating system which can run downloaded applications from an online google market usually referred to us as The Google Play Store or The Google Market.

The first mentioning of this term Smartphone can be traced back to the 1980s when the telephone enriched with computer technology was invented. Originally marketed as PDAs, Personal Digital Assistants, these gadgets have brought about tremendous transformations in the lives of the global population. As already stated, they have played a vital role in not only exposing users to a wide variety of applications at their disposal but also, they have offered and continue to provide an excellent platform for communication. The use of smartphones, however, differs from one age group to another. My primary concern in this essay is to look at how smartphones are used in different ages and for what purposes are they used (Changgyu, 2014).  Perhaps more importantly, how dependent these different generations are on smartphones, and to what varying degrees.

The Younger Users

In an online survey coupled with personal interviews,  data was collected, analyzed and presented in this essay. These studies were conducted to compare and contrast the overall usage and dependence of varying generations and the smartphone. Data was conclusive that Generation Z (Australia’s McCrindle Research Centre defines Generation Z as those born between 1995–2009) and Millennials (there are no precise dates for when this cohort starts or ends; demographers and researchers typically use the early 1980s as starting birth years and the mid-1990s to early 2000s as ending birth years) are clearly the most affected smartphone users groups.  The young group exhibit addiction-like symptoms to smartphones. In twenty – six personal interviews with users between the ages of 5 – 26 years old,  eleven  (42.25%) confessed to having a feeling of having lost part of oneself when they are without their phones; one even likened the sense to the ‘phantom limb’ syndrome, an issue amputees face. Phantom Limb Syndrome is defined by NEWS Medical Life Sciences as a vivid perception that a limb that has been removed or amputated and is still present in the body and performing its normal functions. Amputees usually experience sensations including pain in the phantom limb (Cheriyedath, 2016). Is this then, the beginning of technology being hardwired into our biological bodies? In this case through a “sense” of some kind of neuronal connection to an external device?

Another area of research was to compare the amount of money spent on smartphones between parents and their children. More than 20% of the youth interviewees had more expensive gadgets than their parents. Even the very young are consumers. In the age range 5 to 8-year-olds, 66.6% have in one way or the other used a smartphone. The study also revealed that more than 50% of 12-year-olds own a smartphone. In comparing households, more than 10% of homes with kids with 12 years and younger also own iPads and more than half of these homes (50%) are planning to buy smartphones for their children in the coming year (Williams, 2017).

According to te PEW Research Foundation, out of the 7 billion messages sent monthly in the United States only, almost 60% are sent by teens. On average a 15-year-old spends more than 80 minutes texting in a day, which equates to an average of about 70 texts a single day. Teens use smartphones to access the internet 90% of the time as compared to a computer or iPad (PEW 2017). More than 30% of 5-year-olds surveyed and over 60% of 6-10-year-olds, understand how to use and do use the internet regularly using smartphones. Further, more than 90% of 5-10 year- olds use smartphones and the internet to play games, 40% use smartphones with the internet in executing their homework while 30% talked about using the net and smartphones in social media and emailing (Poushter, 2016).


The Older Users

The survey revealed different habits by the older generation. The seniors’ shift into smartphone usage is increasing despite being known as late technology adopters. The oldest generation, in this case, respondents were the Boomers, aged 50 – 69 years of age, and The Silent Generation, 70 years and above, were the groups used for comparison with the youngest group. Extremes as it were. Of these two generations, 80% of the now own a smartphone; this is about 10% increase from last year’s research (Pew Research Center, 2016). Of this 80%, more than 50% have a connection to high-speed internet (Rainie & Perrin, 2016).

Despite this data showing some adoption of the smartphone technology by the oldest generation, most of them are still lagging behind regarding technology. More than 25% of the old do not use smartphones at all and up to about 40% do not have any access to being online at all (“Generational differences in mobile device use”, 2017). 

In the personal interviews with our older respondents, there were several reasons for a lack of smartphone usage and internet connection. Physical challenges such as being handicapped, disabilities and other chronic diseases which make the use of these gadgets very difficult was one reason. Others had cynical attitudes towards technology, about 40% of those who did not have smartphones during the time of interview clearly stated that they “…did not need a smartphone.” Cost was also an issue, but the most overwhelming challenge was learning how to apply and use the new technology. Only 20% of the ones interviewed expressed the urge to get to use smartphones, the rest about 80% required a guide to take them through the whole procedure. It was described as being “very frustrating” and “makes me stressed out”. Of these respondents that had internet access, 95%  preferred owning a tablet or an e-reader compared to a smartphone. The primary reason stated was being “able to see the damn thing” as one gentleman summed up. Nearly 75% preferred to have a simple mobile device such as a flip phone with which they carry out basic tasks like calling or use in an emergency. The results of the survey could be interpreted as technology in smartphones causes high levels of stress in the 65+ generation, however, they simply avoid the technology and thus have little or no dependence on them. In contrast, the younger generation does not have as much stress with the technology itself but rather the dependence on it. There is no thought of NOT having a smartphone for them. It is a critical and required part of their lives.

The Stats

There are several studies which support these conclusions. Research by engadget.com found the Millennials, defined in this study by people falling between 24 to 32 years of age, to owning the highest number of these smartphones. Another detailed study by the Real-World Education for Modern Markets and the Experian Marketing Services divided smartphone users into four main groups; The generation Z, the Millennials, the generation X, the boomers and lastly the silent generation. Where the Z generation consists of individuals between 12 to 18 years, Millennials are aged between 19 to 34 years, the X generation 35 to 49 years, the boomers between 50 to 69 years and the silent generation to be 70 years and above. The bar graph below shows the penetration of smartphones in the various groups by 2015.

Source: Simmons Teen Survey and HHCS (Fal 2015) 

Like the engadget.com study, the latter also confirmed that the Millennials use smartphones more significantly than all other generations combined. They, for example, illustrated that Millennials spend up to 2 hours a day which amounts up to more than 14 hours a week averagely. This stands for about 41% of the total time that Americans citizens spend on their smartphones. 

The smartphones use range far and wide from simple texting and receiving calls to the sophisticated browsing and streaming. Data from Simmons NCS, still from the same study shows different age groups and how differently they apply and use their smartphones. Starting with Millennials, this age set is not only known as the heaviest users of the gadgets but also the most diverse users of all the age sets. They mainly use smartphones in live streaming, watching videos, social networking, IM/ chatting and they engage mobile GPS.  They are likely to use applications like Skype and other Sports applications as well as social networking applications more than other groups.

The bar graph below by the Experian Marketing Service survey 2014, will shed even more light on the summarized findings of the study on how each and every group engages in the different smartphone activities in an archetypal week.

Source: Millenials Come of Age, Experian Marketing Services, 2014

The study goes even further to show how these different generations connect and access the internet and when and in search of what. As usual, Millennials are the heavy-duty users, and they take the larger percentage of 43% to access and use the internet with their smartphones compared to their computers. Others like the Generations Xers settle for about 20% of internet use. The boomers and the silent generation take 37%. On a unique day, Millennials’ use of smartphones crests between 4 PM to 6 PM. This makes up for about 69% of all Millennials. Generation Xers use their phone 35% of the time during this time span, and about 66% of the oldest groups which include the silent and boomer generations use their gadgets during this period. The period of time that smartphones are used least is between 12 midnight and 1 AM. But even in this least used phase, the Millennials are still the heaviest users with a little over 15% of Millennials using their gadgets at this time. This data is visually represented in the charts below:

Source: Millenials Come of Age, Experian Marketing Services, 2014



In conclusion, the globe is continuing to go mobile at hyper speed, smartphones are altering not only the way we interconnect, connect and communicate but also the design of how we get information, interact socially and consumption of goods and services. Smartphones are increasingly utilized by every generation, but heaviest use is from the Millennials followed by teens (“Baby Boomers Gain Freedom Through Technology“, 2015). The least amount of text stress is reported by the Silent Generation because they simply do not engage in smartphone usage as a rule. The least amount of reported stress from technology using a smartphone is from the youngest generations, however, the largest amount of dependence is also these younger groups which lead to more actual stress.

Finally, a study in 2015 by Baylor University shows how ingrained smartphones are in the 15-22 age group. Cell phone and instant messaging addictions are driven by materialism and impulsiveness and can be compared to consumption pathologies like compulsive buying and credit card misuse, according to a Baylor University study in the Journal of Behavioral Addictions.

“Cell phones are a part of our consumer culture,” said study author James Roberts, Ph.D., professor of marketing and the Ben H. Williams Professor of Marketing at Baylor’s Hankamer School of Business. “They are not just a consumer tool, but are used as a status symbol. They’re also eroding our personal relationships.”

Roberts’ study, co-authored with Stephen Pirog III, Ph.D., associate professor and chair of the department of marketing at Seton Hall University, found that materialism and impulsiveness drive cell phone addiction. Cell phones are used as part of the conspicuous consumption ritual and also act as a pacifier for the impulsive tendencies of the user, according to Roberts. Impulsiveness, he noted, plays an important role in both behavioral and substance addictions.

This study is the first to investigate the role materialism plays in cell phone addiction. According to Roberts, materialism is an important consumer value that impacts many of the decisions we make as consumers. Additionally, cell phone use and over-use have become so common that it is important to have a better understanding of what drives these types of technological addictions (Roberts, 2017).

Previous studies have shown that young adults send an average of 109.5 text messages a day or approximately 3,200 texts each month up from the PEW study referenced above by 39.5 more texts each day. (That represents an increase of nearly 40% in three short years – 2012 – 2015.) Young adults receive an additional 113 text messages and check their cell 60 times in a typical day and on average, college students spend approximately seven hours daily interacting with information and communication technology (Smith, 2015).

Data for this study come from self-report surveys of 191 business students at two U.S. universities. Cell phones are used by approximately ninety percent of college students, and said Roberts, “<they> serve more than just a utilitarian purpose”. Since smartphones are accessible at any time, including during class, and possess an ever-expanding array of functions, it makes their use or over-use increasingly likely. A majority of young people claim that losing their cell phone would be disastrous to their social lives. (Baylor University, 2015)

“At first glance, one might have the tendency to dismiss such aberrant cell phone use as merely youthful nonsense – a passing fad. But an emerging body of literature has given increasing credence to cell phone addiction and similar behavioral addictions,” Roberts said (2017).

What we can glean from this essay is that young people, more so than any other age group must exercise caution with smartphone technology. The mere fact that they have nothing to compare with NOT having a smartphone makes this a very interesting, unprecedented and perhaps pivotal time in social history. We are at the initial stage of this phenomenon. We must stay vigilant, and those of us that are of an older generation have a moral responsibility to help guide the young generation as much as possible. Provided it’s not too late already.


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