Teenagers have previously lagged behind adults in their ownership of cell phones, but several years of survey data collected by the Pew Internet & American Life Project show that those ages 12-17 are closing the gap in cell phone ownership. The Pew Internet Project first began surveying teenagers about their mobile phones in its 2004 Teens and Parents project, when a survey showed that 45% of teens had a cell phone. Since that time, mobile phone use has climbed steadily among teens ages 12 to 17 — to 63% in fall of 2006 and to 71% in early 2008.


In comparison, 77% of all adults (and 88% of parents) had a cell phone or other mobile device at a similar point in 2008. Cell phone ownership among adults has since risen to 85%, based on the results of our most recent tracking survey of adults conducted in April 2009. (The Pew Internet Project is currently conducting a survey of teens and their parents and will be releasing the new figures in early 2010.)


We went back to our databanks in light of the intriguing findings about adult mobile phone use in two of our recent reports, and to help lay the ground work for our current project on youth and mobile phones. Among our questions: How does teen cell phone use stack up against their adoption of other technologies? Our surveys show that while 71% of teens owned cell phones in 2008:

  • 77% of teens owned a game console like an Xbox or a PlayStation
  • 74% of teens owned an iPod or mp3 player
  • 60% of teens “owned” a desktop or laptop computer
  • 55% of teens owned a portable gaming device

The computer ownership number has been stable since 2006, but it is somewhat complicated because it is sometimes hard for teens and their parents to sort out who owns what technology in a household. Cell phones and mp3 players are personal and heavily personalized devices and tend to be “owned” by one individual. Game-related devices are more likely to be conceived of by families as “owned” by the children in the household, while computers are more likely to be owned collectively by the family, or by the adults in the household.

Who Has a Mobile Phone?

Among teens, age is the most important variable in mobile phone ownership. Older teens are much more likely to own phones than younger teens, and the largest increase occurs at age 14, right at the transition between middle and high school. Among 12-13 year olds, 52% had a cell phone in 2008. Mobile phone ownership jumped to 72% at age 14 in that survey, and by the age of 17 more than eight in ten teens (84%) had their own cell phone.


Beyond age, there are few differences in mobile phone ownership by other personal characteristics. Girls and boys are equally likely to own a phone and there are no differences by race or ethnicity in phone ownership. However, there are small differences in phone ownership by socio-economic status; in families with the highest levels of income and education, teens are more likely than in less well-off families to have a cell phone.

Internet users are more likely than non-users to have a cell phone; however half of teens who do not go online do own a mobile phone.


How Are Teens Using Telephones, Mobile or Otherwise?

For teens as a whole, landline phones remain the most widespread method of communication with friends. Fully 88% of all teens — regardless of whether or not they own a cell phone — say that they talk to their friends on a landline phone at least occasionally. By comparison, 67% of all teens say they talk to friends on a cell phone, and 58% of all teens say they have ever sent a text message.

When we look specifically at teen cell phone owners (71% of the teen population in the 2008 survey) 94% of them have used their mobile phones to call friends and 76% have sent text messages. Still, landlines have not lost their relevance for teens with cell phones; 87% of teenage cell phone users still talk to their friends on landlines.

Perhaps more illuminating with regard to what teens really enjoy are the Pew Internet Project’s findings on daily telephone related activities, and how these stack up against other types of communication. For daily activities, cell phone-based communication is dominant, with nearly two in five teens sending text messages every day. Voice calling on cell phones is nearly as prevalent, as more than a third (36%) of all teens (and 51% of those with cell phones) talk to their friends on the cell phone every day.

Landline phones are also important in teens’ daily lives, with 32% of teens saying they use them to make calls on a daily basis. A considerable number of teens with cell phones continue to use landlines daily and at the same rate as their cell phone-less counterparts, with 33% of cell owners making a call on a landline each day. Teens still speak and interact in person too. About one in three teens (29%) spend time with friends in person outside of school on a daily basis.

The three other primarily text-based forms of communication stand at the bottom of the list of daily communication activities. A bit more than a quarter (26%) of all teens send messages (emails, instant messages, group messages) through social networking sites — and 43% of teens who use social networks send messages daily. Similarly, another 26% of teens send and receive instant messages on a daily basis and 16% send email every day.


One gap in our data relates to the use of mobile phones or other mobile devices (like PDAs or smartphones) to go online. We first asked the question back in 2004 and have not repeated it since. In 2004, we found that a tiny number of teens use their mobile devices to use the internet. At that point in time, 45% of teens had a cell phone and 10% of them said they used it to go online. That same year 7% of teens had a PDA (Palm Pilot, Blackberry, Sidekick) and just two percent of them used it to go online. We hope to collect more data on this topic in an upcoming youth survey scheduled for release in 2010.

Via Pew Research Center