|Universität Zürich||Soziologisches Institut der Universität Zürich||Prof. Dr. Hans Geser|
the Mobile Phone
Pre-teen cell phone adoption:
Consequences for later patterns of phone usage and involvement
In its present digital version (GSM), the mobile phone has begun its spectacular diffusion about 1995, when it was still predominantly used for business purposes, and possession was mainly restricted to men and women who had completed school and were already earning their own money on a job (Ling 2001a: 7). Until 2001, cell phones had reached a societal penetration rate of about 60-80%: more than the fixed phone had achieved within a hundred years since its inception (1876). Thus, we can observe an extremely rapid diffusion process needing only about 6 years to come to completion. This breath-taking speed cannot be compared with the diffusion velocity of any other technological gadget during the same period or anytime before (including the spread of PC's and Internet connections). Interestingly, some more traditional regions like Europe and South East Asia had a larger share in this process than the United States (Lorente 2002).
Considering the increasingly homogeneous diffusion of the cell phone among different social strata (as well as countries with rather divergent levels of socioeconomic development), this new technology can be considered a belated argument for Helmut Schelskys thesis that modern consumer society will diminish the importance of social class cleavages, while increasing on the other hand cleavages associated with age cohorts and generations (Schelsky 1957)
As in the case of all communication media, the possession and usage of mobile phones cannot be understood as a sum of independent individual usage patterns, because usage is embedded in social interactions within a setting of bilateral relationships and multilateral group structures. Certainly, early adopters of a new invention always need a special subjective motivation to be in front of others: e. g. a particular interest in boasting or a special liking for the technology. Thus, the first car owners and TV viewers were “freaks” who were ready to adopt the new gadget even at periods when their utility was still drastically low (because of scarcity of streets and TV programs).
Similarly, early telephone users had to pay much for a technology that not very instrumental, because given the low number of owners, the likelihood of receiving calls as well as the opportunities for contacting others were rather low. Empirical studies show that mobile phones were no exception to this regularity. Thus, as late as 1998, Rich Ling has found that mobile phone owners maintained more positive attitudes toward the technology than non-owners (Ling 1998). Interestingly, it as found that ownership was the main differentiating variable, not the degree of actual use. With increasing diffusion, however, such subjective attitudes lose significance, because there are too many social reasons for adoption. (To the contrary, strong subjective convictions may today be needed to resist when everybody else conforms). Thus, the mere possession of a cell phone is often dictated by parameters outside the respective individual: by social expectations and social controls emanating from family members, friends and peers. Similarly, the intensity of usage is at least partially independent from subjective preferences, e. g. because incoming calls and text messages have to be answered.
As it is well known, consumption patterns of adolescents are especially prone to be influenced by collective norms. Thus, studies show that many adopt a mobile just because "many colleagues already have one" or because it is "cool" (Kunz Heim 2003: 83). On the other hand, social conformity pressures seem to play a surprisingly little role (Kwon and Chidambaram (2000), as users consistently say that they are not looking down on anybody just because he or she has no mobile phone (Kunz Heim 2003). Given this collective nature of communication technologies, it is not possible to follow the diffusion model of Rogers which presupposes that every individual decides on his own about the adoption (Rogers 1995). Instead, the adoption process may be hastened (and especially: made more extensive) by group conformity pressures that cause almost everybody to adopt the new devices - regardless of any corresponding subjective motivation (Ling 2001b).
2. The particular proneness of adolescents to use mobile phones
As it has been shown by a mass of empirical evidence from all world regions., adolescents were most eager to embrace the new communication technologies among all demographic groups. As Ling reports for Norway, only 3 percent of 13 years old had cell phones in 1997, while this percentage has risen to 50% in Nov 1999 and to over 80% in 2001. For 16 years old, the percentage was less than 20 in 1997, but about 80% in 1999 and almost 100% in 2001. (Ling 2001a: 7). In Italy, it was reported that in 2004 more than 50% of all children own a phone set when they are nine or ten (ITU 2004: 12).
As a consequence, today's adolescents can be considered to be the real
From our knowledge about the personal, social and cultural conditions and developments of adolescents, different hypothesis can be derived for explaining why they have adopted such a pioneering role.
First, it has often been found that adolescents are also highly susceptible to fashions, trends and styles: making them open for adopting any new technological devices and behavioral patterns when these are considered to be "hip" and "cool". (Ling 2001a). As stated by Hurrelmann, adolescents have a strong inclination for "conspicuous consumption", by using various material objects as status symbols or as indicators of group belongingness (Hurrelmann 1995: 163). Thus, they assimilate the mobile as an object of style: profiled by trendy forms and colours, ring tones and accessories that express the special self-identity of each respective user. As a consequence, ownership as well as usage of mobile phones cannot be reduced to personal needs (instrumental or socio-emotional), because they are additionally fuelled by such symbolic considerations. In fact, the mobile phone has become one of the most intimate and personalized material objects, to be compared with keys or wallets .In a UK survey, almost half of the users said that the loss of their mobile would result in a sort of “bereavement”
Most adolescents carry their phone set with them all the time, many keep it under their pillows or on their bedside table at night (ITU 2004: 7). Thus, there is certainly no other digital device evoking so much emotionality and personalized involvement, certainly not TV sets, digital cameras, VCR’s or TV’s. No other electronic device is instrumentalized so much for purposes of identity management” Its evolution goes along with a constant expansion of personalized features: wallpapers, ring tones, coloured covers etc. As a consequence, emotional attachment is a special dimension of mobile involvement that may not be strongly associated with intensity of usage. In fact, we may find individuals who consider their cell phone exclusively as a lifestyle gadget, not as a tool for communication. On the other hand, however, neither the extensive diffusion nor the intensive usage of mobiles mean that adolescents have become psychologically dependent on the new technology or even "addicted" to it. For instance, Doris Kunz Heim found that most girls and boys would find a life without mobile not too hard to endure (Kunz Heim 2003: 93).
Secondly, it is evident that the mobile phone can support the well-known tendencies of adolescents to emancipate from the local context of parental home and to integrate themselves into (usually translocal) networks of peers. (Ling 2001a). In the course of modernization, many factors have increased the chances of even very young children to escape from their parents influence and to adopt attitudes and activities shaped by peers and larger society. Thus,
Given the ubiquitous accessibility to
technically mediated forms of play, information and communication, even
very young kids are highly empowered "social actors" constantly
busy with taking their decisions among a wealth of different alternatives.
Thus, they tend to constitute a separate group of society integrated by
"peer culture" in a similar way as adolescents: e. g. by sharing
patterns of material culture and activity (e. g. based on toys, sport
articles, clothes etc.) that may relativize or override influences
stemming from their local home environment and their particular parents
(Buchner 1995; Seiter 1993; Kline 1993; Steinbergh et. al. 1997; Zinnecker
This leads to the third hypothesis
that the early adoption of mobile phones may also be encouraged by the
parents and be functional to support intergenerational relationships -
especially under current conditions of high geographical distances and
mobility. While the peer group influences are thus
accelerated, extended and deepened, it is not clear to what degree
parental influences are weakened, because parents have also more means at
hand to influence or even control their children (e. g. by paying them
expensive sport activities or transporting them to courses and leisure
events of their choosing by car). Evidently, parents from higher social
classes have more resources at hand for directing their kid's behavior and
social life (Zinnecker 1995; Meulman 2000). Especially mothers have been
found to introduce their children to music, theatre and other cultural
spheres (Howard 1990). On the other hand, research has also shown that
kids form wealthier backgrounds tend to develop ties with peers earlier in
their childhood (Meulman 2000), so that they may also develop earlier
needs to contact them by mobile phone.
Such arguments weaken the conventional hypothesis that with increasing age, adolescents lessen their interactions with family members by shifting communication to peers (Kunz Heim 2003). In fact, Kunz Heim has found that older teens were more likely, not less likely to maintain regular phone contacts to family members (Kunz Heim 2003: 89). This may be explained by the fact that they are more often away from home, so that they have less opportunity to communicate face-to-face. Under such conditions, parents have cogent reasons to buy mobiles for their youngsters and even to pay most of their bills. First of all, they hope to keep a certain control on the whereabouts of their offspring. Secondly they, use mobiles for coordination purposes (e. g. by calling them when dinner is ready). And thirdly, parents use the mobile for security purposes: for assuring themselves that kids are well, and for allowing kids to phone home whenever they are in need.
In the past, such controls and coordinations were only possible when youngsters where known to be in specific places. Today, they are compatible with their unpredictable movement in a wide geographical region, because phone calls always target a specific person, not a specific place (Ling 2000b: 12). Likewise, mobile phone is highly compatible with high mobility of parents: e. g. allowing divorced fathers to contact their children from distant places. Thus, mobiles make it possible to combine intensive family bonds with high freedoms of movement for all the participating individuals: for the adolescents who seek integration into their peer group as well as for working mothers or distant fathers. For instance, Doris Kunz Heim has found many cases where parents gave mobile phones to their kids even against their own will: just to install an "umbilical cord" to keep them under protection and control (Heim Kunz 2003: 85).
3. The consequences of earlier adoption as a focus of research
Earlier cohorts of teenagers have adopted the phone without much family influence, because older siblings, father and mother were not yet acquainted with the technology. Thus, it may be expected that peer influences were dominant. Today, almost all children grow in a setting where adults are already acquainted with the mobile phone. Consequently, they are likely to get into contact with it already very early in life. More and more, girls as well as boys adopt their first cell phone at the age between 10 and 12. As studies have shown for decades, this is an age where youngsters are still very much embedded in family relations and live most of their leisure time still with their parents.
The factual diffusion process toward lower and lower age groups is not fully in line with adult preferences, because surveys show that parents think that adolescents below 15 should not be in possession of their own phone (Ling 2000b:9f.). Major reasons for this are financial: kids are supposed to earn first their own money (Ling 2000b: 11). Evidently, the parents seem not to be capable of withstanding the pressures emanating from the peer groups of their children - even when they organize in order to increase their level of control. (Ling 2000b:10) A major factor for widespread diffusion among young people was the introduction of subsidized handsets and pre-paid subscriptions, because prepaid cards help to keep mobile costs under control - what is especially important for youngsters with a more modest background. (Mante/Piris 2002). Most teens get their first mobile phones as a gift from their parents. Very often, it is an older model no longer used by father, mother or older siblings (Kunz Heim 2003:85). Thus, one reason why mobile possession trickles down to ever younger age groups has to do with the very high replacement rates of hand sets: leading to so many "useless" sets that would be thrown away when they could not be recommissioned to younger kids.
As the cell phone is entering the socialization process at ever earlier stages, the question arises whether this has any significant consequences for personality development and identity formation as well as for the behavioral patterns in later adult years. As it seems premature to formulate too specific hypotheses, the following four points may have to be considered:
1) All educational theory relies on the premise that during ontogeny, human beings pass "formative years" of their personality development during which they are especially prone to be deeply shaped by external influences. These years constitute the "window of opportunity" for pedagogues to exert their influence: e. g. for producing stable values and attitudes or lifelong behavioral habitualizations. (Bernard 1926). Following these lines, we my hypothesize that pre-teens may possess a widely open “window of digital learning” in a similar way as two-year old toddlers are extremely disposed to learn any oral language, or similar to some 11 year olds who can be directed toward prodigious sport performances when they are induced to training at this early age. Thus, when mobile phones are adopted with 15 years or even later, usage may well remain lower level because motivations for playful learning and exploration are diminished and the new technology is not assimilated in the same encompassing way.
2) The earlier the age of adoption, the more probable that relatively strong family influences on usage patterns will possibly be exerted. Thus, low adopters may show wider divergences related to the socio-economic standing as well as to the educational styles of their parents, to their siblings or other environmental factors. By studying such relationships, it may well be found that such impacts are especially profound
In addition, mothers should have more influence than fathers, because they exert higher control over their children's telephone usage (Pasquier 2001; Kunz Heim 2003: 81).
3) By adopting a mobile phone, teens enter a process of cumulative self-socialization (Kunz Heim 2003) by becoming habituated to the new medium and developing skills for using it efficiently etc. Skog stresses that younger users are expanding quickly their competences because they are motivated to explore the functionalities of mobiles with a playful attitude. In the course of such explorations, they acquire a “digital capital” they can use for asserting themselves vis-à-vis adults. Thus,
4) A strong self-reinforcing impact on
mobile usage stems from social influences. Whenever somebody begins to make mobile
calls, receivers will phone back on the same number because the number
appears on the display and can be answered by merely clicking a button. As a consequence, lists of numbers are
automatically accumulating in the phone archive. So, when I want to
contact somebody, I have to use the mobile because the phone number is
only stored there. When time goes on, peers, family members
and other contact persons expect from me that I'm accessible and that I
rapidly answer SMS, so that I have to carry the phone with me and keep it
on. Thus, many forces converge to make mobile usage a self-reinforcing and
self-expanding activity, so that ever more calls are sent and received and
ever higher monthly bills have to be paid.
4. Data and Methodology
The following empirical results are based
on a survey carried through in September and December 2003 at several
vocational schools in Zurich (Switzerland) comprising young apprentices
(mostly between 17-21 years old) in the field of construction, office
administration as well as fashion and design. Based on the teacher's
permission, the standardized questionnaire was applied during classes, so
that a very high return rate (of more than 95%) could be achieved. On the
average, it took students a mean of 30 minutes of class time to complete
the questionnaire. As an incentive to answer the questions thoroughly,
students who took part in the survey could choose to have their names
drawn for a prize.
Table 1: Frequency distribution of respondents: according to gender and age
5. Empirical results
5. 1. The rapid trend toward ever earlier initial adoption
Table 2 demonstrates that the downward diffusion of mobile phone to lower age groups has proceeded in a similar manner in Switzerland as in other countries (e. g. Scandinavian). Interestingly, most apprentices have bought (or received) their first cell phone at about 1999-2001: a year was the oldest cohorts have almost reached maturity, while youngsters born in 1986/87 were in their earliest teens. Among the youngest cohort born in 1988, no less than 36% have adopted the mobile already as pre-teens, at an age almost nobody used it three years before. Within four years, the "window of adoption age" has shifted downwards about four years: from 14-18 years (1984 cohort) to 10-14 years (cohort of 1988). As shown in Figures 1 and 2, males and females have undergone almost identical evolutions. However, women seem a little quicker; the oldest cohort was more disposed to adopt the mobile phone before 16 years, and the younger females seem a little more prone than males to initiative usage below 14 years of age. Remarkably, no gender-related differences can be observed within the intermediate groupings.
Table 2: Age at first cell phone ownership for different cohorts of birth
5.2 Intensity of phone usage
The results of Table 3 demonstrate that there is a highly consistent negative correlation between the age of first adoption and all indicators of current usage intensity (in summer 2003). Thus, very early (=pre-teen) adopters of both genders show highest values in monthly phone bills as well as in the average number of monthly outgoing and incoming call and text messages, while very late adopters (17 years of age) rank lowest on all these five scales. Given the high covariance between adoption age and year of birth, it is important to check whether these correlations also hold when current age is controlled. In fact, all partial coefficients remain on the same level of significance as the bivariate correlations. In the case of monthly bills, controlling for age results in even tighter correlations, because the bivariate relationship masks the regularity that most pre-teen adopters stem from younger age cohorts who have not much money to spend.
Table 3: Usage intensity of the mobile phone: according to age at first ownership
*Partial correlation coefficient: with current age controlled.
It is interesting to note that the
financial expenses of the highest group are only about 60% above the
lowest, while the number of call and text messages varies much more: by a
factor of three to four. These divergences indicate that intensive users
either discipline their costs by making shorter calls or by opting for
more degressive (e.g. flat-rate type) schemes of payment. At least on the level of oral
communication, the number of incoming calls is much more affected than the
frequency of outgoing calls, so that early adopters show a very high
surplus of receivings over emissions. From this regularity, it might be
concluded that while early adoption implicate higher levels of active
usage, it goes along with even higher embedment in social networks from
within which such incoming calls are generated.
5.3 Extensity and intensity of phone partner networks
The larger amount calls and text messages of early adopters may either be caused by contacting a specific number of partners more frequently or by interacting with a larger total number of partners (or of course by any mixture of these two). For assessing the extension of their networks, informants were asked to count the number of individuals they have contacted more than once during the three preceding months. The results show clearly that earlier adoption goes along with a larger number of contact persons, especially in the male sample where the network of pre-teen initiators is more than 100% larger than that of very late adopters (48 vs. 23) (Table 4). While the correlations lose some weight when current age is controlled, they remain still significant.
Table 4: Number of phone partners contacted several times during the last three months: according to age at first ownership*
*Partial correlation coefficient: with current age controlled.
5.4 Temporal accessibility
Given that the mobile phone is highly
intrusive insofar as it can ring at any inconvenient moments (e. g. while
riding the car or being absorbed in local conversations), there is a high
need to restrict exposure by switching it off during specific time spans
or at particular places (Geser 2003). Astonishingly enough, almost all informants
say that they leave their mobile usually on during mornings, afternoons
and evenings, while about two out of three also refuse to turn off during
Table 5: Percentage of users who have their mobile on during nights: according to age of first ownership
*Partial correlation coefficient: with current age controlled.
5.5 Affective mobile phone involvement
While a considerable part of the
questionnaire was dedicated to behavioral patterns, several questions
tried to tap subjective attitudes toward the new technology, especially
the strength of psychological involvement which was measured by a series
of four-point Likert-scale items. On the most general level, it was found
that such subjective involvements were mostly quite moderate or even very
low, particularly within the male subsample where only 8% fully agreed
with the statement that the mobile has become part of their personal style
of life, and only 14 % asserted unconditionally that they could not
imagine their life without. While females of all ages cohorts showed
consistently higher levels of attachment, they were also rather reluctant
to consider cell phones an indispensable ingredient of their daily
Table 6: Degree of acceptance vs. rejection of two statements about the subjective attachment to the mobile phone: according to age at first ownership
(Average value on a scale between 100 (total acceptance) and -100 (total rejection).
*Partial correlation coefficient: with current age controlled.
Given these strong impacts on subjective involvements, it may be expected that early adoption also goes along with more positive overall evaluations about how the cell phone changes the quality of one's social life. In fact, we can see in Table 7 that pre-teen adopters are most likely to agree with the statement that the mobile phone has improved relations to friends, and not to disagree with the assertion that it has positively affected intrafamily relations (Table 7). Again, it becomes evident that females maintain consistently more positive evaluations than males, but that the covariance with adoption age is about the same in both genders. As in the case of all other dependent variables reported, correlations remain highly significant when current age is controlled.
Table 7: Degree of acceptance vs. rejection of two evaluations about the social effects of mobile phone: according to age at first ownership
(Average value on a scale between 100 (total acceptance) and -100 (total rejection).
*Partial correlation coefficient: with current age controlled.
5.6 The changes of early adoption effects with increasing age
The term "socialization" covers a
broad manifold of adaptation, learning, and internalization processes that
differ widely in the degree to which they shape subsequent (adult)
thinking and behavior.
How may be the effect of early cell phone
adopted be envisaged under this perspective? We may expect a rather unspectacular
accelerating impact: causing youngsters to become acquainted a little
earlier with the new technology, but acquiring only a temporary lead that
vanishes quickly because others are following and rapidly reaching the
same levels of interest and practice. In operational terms: the higher the
current age, the less any impact of early adoption will be observed.
Looking at the usage intensity from the perspective of monthly telephone expenses, the conclusion seems highly warranted that considerable inseminative impacts exist (Figure 3). In fact, the lead of earlier over later adopters is most pronounced for more advanced apprentices who are at least 19-20 years of age: at a stage when first adoption lies already 7-8 years behind. Symmetrically, divergences are smallest in the case of youngsters for which only about 4-5 years have elapsed since they havehad their first contacts with mobile phones.
Similarly, the tendency of pre-teen adopters to maintain larger flows of outgoing call messages is most pronounced for the very oldest group of informants (20 or more years), while it is consistently decreasing with each subsequent year of birth (Figure 4). While the older cohorts shows highest differences between adoption age 12 and 13, young users demonstrate lower activity only when they have adopted the cell phone at 14 years or even later. In the case of SMS activity, divergences related to adoption age are somewhat less pronounced. While teens with a very long usage history still show the highest number of outgoing messages per month, high adoption-age differences persist also among all younger birth cohorts (Figure 5).
By summarizing, we can generalize that
Inspecting the number of phone partners contacted within the last months, it appears that the extensities of social networks are not affected in the same straightforward way. While earliest adoption goes along with largest partner lists at least in the three oldest cohorts, these effects are higher for the 18 year olds than for the groups of more advanced age (Figure 6). Thus, it seems that the size of personal networks reacts more to immediate current conditions than to lower-term effects of learning and socialization. Turning toward the aspect of temporal accessibility, Figure 7 demonstrates that availability for incoming calls is also highly influenced by adoption age in all birth cohorts, and that this effect is also not vanishing, but getting stronger with increasing current age. In all groups, users who initiated use at twelve years or even below are most likely to keep their phone switched on during the night, for the small sample of teens; this proportion reaches even 100%.
Finally, Figure 8 and Figure 9 clearly show that attitudinal attachments to the mobile phone are subjected to rather similar socialization impacts as behavioral usage patterns. Within all age groups, earliest adopters are most prone to support the statement that their mobile has become part of their style of life, and that it would be difficult or even impossible to live without. Again, such effects relating to pre-teen age are highest for informants who have reached 20 (or even more) years of age. Interestingly, we observe that late adopters are very likely to increase their involvement with increasing age, while the attachment of early adopters remains about the same - maybe because it was fixed on a high level at the initial phases of usage.
5.7 Early adoption and divergences between genders
The lower the age of first adoption, the
more probable that enduring usage patterns and attitudes are shaped at a
stage where socialization is dominated by strong gender-related factors.
Thus, it is well-known that despite the historical decline of traditional
male-centered values and norms, parental influences on sons and daughters
still follow quite different lines (Peters 1994; Gecas/Seff 1990; Meulman
2000), and that children usually remain tightly embedded in same-sex peer
groups at least until they are 11 to 12 years old (Hibbard/Buhrmester
1998; Maccoby 1990). Consequently, it could be expected that
early adoption engenders deeper gaps between males and females:
divergences that may remain on the same level or even amplify with
Table 8: Gender-related differences in cell phone activities and cell phone attitudes: according to age of first adoption
Starting with the observation that most kids nowadays get their first cell phone at an age or 12 or before, we ask whether such early adoption has only an accelerating effect (by causing a certain usage level to be reached earlier in life), a habitualizing impact (by stabilizing higher usage levels that persist later in life) or an inseminative influence (by instilling drives and learning processes that trigger self-amplifying processes of ever growing usage and involvement).
The empirical results consistently support
the tentative conclusion that habitualizing or even inseminative
influences are at work, because differences between early and later
adopters tend to persist or even to widen in subsequent years (at least up
Apart from determining later usage and involvement levels, it has to be expected that earlier adoption also amplifies differences between the genders, because "mobile socialization" takes place at an age where gender-specific role patterns (associated with the nuclear family) are still very predominant. In fact, the data show that pre-teen adopters develop more pronounced gender divergences when they reach later adolescence or early adult age.
Unquestionably, it has to be humbly admitted that all these causal interpretations are tentative or even speculative, because diachronic data would be necessary to prove that socialization effects are in fact responsible for the observed empirical patterns. As a contrasting interpretation, the "selection hypothesis" could be maintained: stating that early adoption is itself caused by the same underlying personality traits that cause later divergences in usage and involvement. In simplified terms: only kids who are highly extraverted "phone freaks" are prone to embrace the cell phone so early, and given this communicative talent and motivation, they will be disposed to give it a dominant place in their whole later life. While this alternative hypothesis cannot be falsified, it doesn't seem too probable because it supposes that pre-teen kids are in a position to determine autonomously whether and an what point of time they will become owners of their first mobile phone. Given that they are still very much embedded in family life, it seems much more plausible that they adopt the phone because it is made available to them by parents, older siblings or other influential persons.
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Last Update 01.10.2016