Are girls (even) more addicted?
Some gender patterns of cell phone usage
Zürich, June 2006
1. Mobile phones and gender roles
In contrast to the computer and the
Internet where gender-related differences in usage are still pervasive,
the cell phone is usually described as a highly egalitarian technology that
has been adopted similarly by both genders (as well as by populations
differing in age, income, education and ethnic origin). In a very fundamental way, the cell phone
has contributed to equalize the communicative social integration of men
and women much more than the Internet, where male users still dominate. In
several countries, women use it more heavily than men – for voice calls
as well as for text messages (ITU 2004:11)
While both genders are rather similar in
the quantitative intensity of usage, they still differ significantly in
the qualitative patterns and purposes of use. In fact .men and women have
always been found to maintain quite different attitudes toward the phone
and to give it a different place in their whole “communicative economy”
(Rakow, 1992; Moyal 1989 etc.). In a very early study of mobile phone
usage, Rakov and Navarro hypothesized that the mobile telephone was
reinforcing conventional gender patterns, e. g. by emphasizing the role of
the woman as an “accessible nurturer” and a person in need of male
protection (Rakov/Navarro 1993)
1) Typically, men are stressing instrumental phone uses, as
Women, on the other hand, tend to use the phone more as medium for personal and emotional exchange (Lohan 1997; Lorente 2002: 16):
More recent studies have demonstrated that women
use the mobile more for lengthy talks about personal and emotional
matters, while males make shorter calls dedicated more frequently for
instrumental purposes (e. g. for coordinating meeting times and places)
(Kunz Heim 2003: 89; Mante/Piris 2002). Females are more involved in
gossip, because men also tend to gossip primarily with women, not with
other males (Potts 2004; Fox 2004) Such findings are in accordance with the more
general socio-psychological regularity that girls are more prone to
disclose personal information and emotions and to discuss their
subjective tastes and interests than boys (Buhrmester/Prager 1995; Jourard, 1971; Stern 2004), and that they are more disposed
to talk about their anxieties (O'Neill/Fein/Velit/Frank 1976).
They also converge on the regularity that women have more
sophisticated communication and conversation skills, they are more apt
to initiate new topics (Fishman 1978) of conversation and to adapt when
topics are changed (Sattel 1976).
2) Boys are also more prone to explore the ever expanding new functional features of current mobile phones (e. g. for gaming, hooking up to the Internet etc.), while girls use a narrower scope of (exclusively communicational) functions (Höflich/Rössler 2002: 94f.). Therefore, boys report more frequently that they have “fun” in using the phone (Höflich/Rössler 2002: 95). These German findings conform with the results of Potts’ Oakland study which demonstrated that males make more use of the more expanded Internet functions of the mobile, while women restrict their usage to more conventional (communicative) functions (Potts 2004). Similarly, Skog (2002) observed that girls valued social functionality of the mobile phone higher than boys, who on the other hand stressed technical functionality and non-interactive uses like gaming (see also: Mante/Piris 2002).
3) As is well known, women have a central role in maintaining any kind of social network) especially among family members and kin. (Wellman 1992; Ling 2001a; Ling 1998). Therefore, the networks of women are often larger and more complex that those of men (Cochran et. al 1993: 90; Moore 1990). Women are also more prone to keep connected to their family - what should result in a higher preference for family members (and other highly familiar individuals) as phone partners
Thus, it is to be expected that phone adoption by girls is more heavily determined by parental status characteristics, preferences and behavior than in the case of boys:
4) Several studies have shown that the meaning and
use of the mobile phone changes with age. The preoccupation with SMS
messaging is especially high in the early teens. After 16, the
adolescent shows a more 'grown-up' pattern of mobile phone use, in which
SMS becomes less and face-to-face more important (Rautiainen 2000). When
they are around 20, voice calls have replaced SMS to a significant
degree (Ling 2001a: 10; Potts 2004). However, Rich Ling’s studies demonstrate that
adolescent females as well as adult women up to 40 are more active in
sending SMS messages than males. In addition, Kaseniemi & Rautiainen
(2002) observed that girls tend to write longer texts: they more often
used all 160 characters of an SMS and filled it with references and
social gossip, while boys often wrote messages of 40-50 characters with
“plain language”. On the other hand, young and middle-aged males are
most audio callers (Ling 2001a: 10).
Thus, sending an SMS means that it is up to the receiver to decide whether and when he or she will answer it, while voice are more risky because they may intrude into an unfitting situation or may evoke a sudden, unreflected reaction.
2. The scope of the present study
By considering all these rather preliminary findings based on a narrow time range and quite few countries, there is much need for additional research studies elucidating the pervasiveness and strength of gender divergences as well as the situational conditions under which they are amplified or attenuated. For three reasons, the empirical study presented here can address fruitfully these and similar questions: First, it covers an additional Western country were hitherto no extensive surveys on this topic have been conducted. Secondly, an unusually broad spectrum of behavioral an attitudinal variables have been measured, so that their particular causations and interrelationships can be studied. Third, the rather comprehensive sample (more than 1400) allows for multivariate statistical analyses, so that gender effects can be isolated from confounding (e. g. age- or SES-related) determinative factors.
3. Data and Methodology
The following empirical results are based on a survey carried through in 2003 at several vocational schools in Zurich (Switzerland): comprising young apprentices (mostly between 17-21) 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 about 95) could be achieved.
The pervasiveness of the new technology is dramatically demonstrated by that fact that out of 1415 respondents, not less than 1356 (=95.8) percent were currently in possession of a personal mobile phone, and among the 59 non-owners, 28 had the habit of borrowing sometimes a set from a sibling or friend. Among the owners, a rather equilibrated distribution according to gender and age was achieved (Table 1).
Table 1: Frequency distribution of respondents: according to gender and age
The highly multicultural demographic structure of current Switzerland was mirrored in the fact that more than 30% of all respondents (421) were originating from a foreign country.
For setting the following empirical results in an appropriate perspective, it has to be considered that apprentices are involved in the dual system of vocational education: attending school during 1-2 days a week, while working in a specific firm during the remaining week. This implies a way of life sharply different from those of full-time students. In particular, school-based peer group integration may be weaker, because apart from participating in their class, they also participate in a work setting where they become involved with people representing very different age cohorts and generations. In addition, these work settings weaken homogeneity and solidarity among adolescents because they are highly divergent: according to geographic location, size and culture of the firms etc. Thus, it might be hypothesized that in contrast to full-time students, apprentices are less involved in peer groups of the same age, and that are more disposed to adopt behavioral habits of older adult populations. Finally, apprentices receive at least a small regular monthly income they can often use for nonvital “luxury” purposes, because most of them still live at home. Therefore, they are better able to pay their own phone expenses - but may also be more disposed to economize mobile phone use in order to keep their monthly bills within reasonable limits.
By asking the apprentices (most of them currently aged 17-21) how old they were when they took their first cell phone into possession, the breath-taking diffusion speed of mobile phone technologies since the late nineties can be reconstructed. As seen from Figures 1 and 2, the evolution of adoption ages was substantially the same for the two genders. By taking a closer look, however, two minor differences can be detected:
1) Within the oldest cohort, girls were somewhat more prone to adopt the cell phone already in 1999 (when they were sixteen) , while most boys adopted it an year later (in 2000).
2) Within the youngest age group (born in 1987), girls again have taken the lead: almost 60% (compared to 40% boys) have become phone owners already at the age of 13, and 85% (instead of 70%) one year later. Absolutely all girls aged 15 use their own handset, while boys reach this saturation point at 16.
Interestingly, no significant gender differences are found in the three intermediate cohorts (born between 1984 and 1986).
These findings again corroborate the contention that cell phone technology is highly egalitarian by being adopted identically by both genders. In this aspect, mobile communication contrasts dramatically with computers and most other technological inventions where males usually have been early adopters, driven by the fascination to try out risky new things as well as by the motivation to gain reputation among themselves or vis-à-vis their female acquaintances. Certainly, this has much to do with the capacity of the new technology to meet female’s needs of social communication. In fact, as the cell phone supports primarily bilateral relationship, it is most useful to teenage girls because girls in this age are most prone to engage in dyadic friendships, while boys prefer more multilateral interactions (Meulman 2000).
A second explanation may be based on the assumption that girls are more likely than boys to be “sponsored“ by parents who want to remain connected to their absent daughters by this “invisible umbilical cord“. Indirect evidence for this hypothesis is provided by Table 2 which shows that girls of any age are more likely than boys to have their current cell phone received as a gift. Such gender discrepancies may even be expected to rise to the degree that the parental generation has also universally adopted the new technology and produces a constant flow of outdated, but still functioning handsets that can easily be recommissioned to their teenage or even: pre-teenage) kids.
Table 2: Percentage of apprentices who have received their actual cell phone as a gift: according to gender and current age
4.2 Intensity of usage
The term “usage intensity“ is a multidimensional
concept that has to be measured by a comprehensive battery of empirical
indicators: by the average monthly telephone bill as well as by the number
of outgoing and incoming audio calls and text messages, the average length
of calls as well as the time span of connectivity and the number of
By focusing on the average monthly number of outgoing calls, very different pictures are emerging. In accordance with the Scandinavian findings mentioned above, males are more active in making audio calls (except in the youngest group where no gender divergences exist (Figure 4), while younger girls (and also women above 20) are significantly more prone to send out text messages. This hyperactivity is certainly caused by the fact that SMS costs are rather low and highly controllable – so that it contrasts visibly with the low monthly expenses (Fig. 5). Thus, two peaks in usage intensity stand out: a male peak around 20 when the frequency of audio calls reaches maximum levels; and a female peak around 17 when SMS activity is on highest levels.
As a joint consequence of these tendencies, girls
aged seventeen have an extreme average ratio between SMS and audio calls
(more then 15(!), while males and females over 20 converge on a much lower
level (about 5) (Figure 6).
Following the lines of conventional gender role
clichés, we may speculate that females show higher rates of passive cell
phone usage by sending out less calls and messages they receive
(especially from courting males). Looking first at audio calls, it seems that this may
by the case for the very youngest female group (aged 16), while older
apprentices show similar lower ratios regardless of gender (Figure 7), In the case of
text messages, even the contrary
regularity holds: males of all ages receive significantly more messages
than they send out (especially between 17 and 19), while females
(particularly in the teen age) consistently show a much more balanced
pattern (Figure 8).
Table 3 provides some insights into the gender-specific driving forces underlying these divergent usage patterns: females generate higher phone traffic when they have received their phone as a present, while males show higher activity when they have bought it themselves. As a consequence, the male predominance in audio calls is primarily generated by the large number of men who have bought their own handset, while the higher SMS activity of females is produced mainly by (also numerous) girls who have received it freely. In a theoretical perspective, we may interpret these regularities in terms of highly generalized gender role patterns explicated above: females being more prone to be influenced by their social surroundings, and males more disposed to follow their self-selected courses of action (see 1).
Table 3: Average number of monthly calls and messages: contrasting students who have bought their cell phone or received it as a gift: according to gender
These same hypotheses are also firmly supported by the regularity that in the case of females, cell phone usage is more tightly connected to social family background than in the case of males. In more specific terms: the number of monthly audio calls and SMS girls send out or receive is highest when the educational level of their parents is consistently low, and it is at the lowest level when father or mother (or both) have academic degrees. As seen from Tables 4 and 5, these negative correlations are significant for the youngest as well as for the oldest female age cohort, while for boys, zero relationships stand out in almost all cases.
Table 4: Correlations between cell
phone traffic and father’s educational level1): according to age and
* p < .05 ** p < .01
Table 5: Correlations between cell
phone traffic and mother’s educational level1): according to age and
* p < .05 ** p < .01
The negative relationship with family status background shows dramatically how the mobile phone has not only conquered all population segments, but even gained a particular significance in the lower classes – despite the rather high economic costs associated with it extensive usage. We may speculate that higher class incumbents produce less phone traffic because they are more likely to channel part of their communication through computerized online channels: email, instant messaging, and the like. But in addition to that, a particular class-specific “mother-daughter” effect seems to be at work. In fact, lower-class mothers are particularly prone to promote the cell phone usage of their female kids by giving them a mobile for free, while higher class mothers are more likely to make similar presents to their sons (Table 6). This accords well with the well-known assumption that on lower social levels, less weight is given to the autonomy of kids (especially girls) than in the middle classes, so that there is more motivation to use the mobile as a “virtual umbilical cord“.
Table 6: Percentage of students who have received their cell phone as a gift; according to gender and mother’s education
Contrary to the expectation that the impact of social background is vanishing with mature age, women aged 20 or more show higher correlations than teenage girls. As a possible explanation, it may be assumed that parental influence have been most decisive in earlier “pioneer phases“ where cell phones were still uncommon, while younger girls live in a peer culture where extensive usage is ubiquitous irrespective of any family factors.
In the following, the focus is shifted to another dimension of usage intensity: the number of different partners that have been contacted during the preceding three months. In order to filter out nonconsequential single calls, the inquiry has focused only on the partners contacted several times during this period. As seen from Figure 8, girls surpass boys by far when they are sixteen, but range below their male colleges in all more advanced age categories. While this conforms to the high male activity in the realm of audio calls (see Figure 4), it contrasts with the female’s predominance in sending SMS (Figure 5). Evidently, it might be speculated that females maintain somewhat smaller networks of partners who are contacted more frequently, while males prefer larger networks of more “superficial” (=more rarely activated) acquaintances. From Figure 9, it can be concluded that exactly this seems to be the case for most age groups. In fact, the gender gap is rising above the age of 19: with the oldest females diverging most dramatically from the same-aged males.
Considering our introductory considerations, it might be hypothesized that female networks center more on family members and relatives, while males focus more on self-created relationships including occasional and transitory partners. For assessing such divergences, respondents were asked to classify their contacted partners accordingly. As seen from Figure 10, the expected gender gap is only visible in the youngest age cohort (aged 16), while intermediate cohorts contact about the same number of kin, and oldest males even surpass women significantly (by contacting on the average about six instead of four family members). Over the whole age range, then, the curves show declining family contacts for women and increasing kin relationships for males.
On the other hand, Figures 11 and Figure 12 confirm that male networks include more partners just classified as mere “acquaintances” as well as individuals just in the course of becoming more acquainted. Particularly older males then seem to use their mobile for enlarging actively their social circles, instead of just strengthening already existing bonds.
4.3 Subjective motivations and emotional commitments
A second major focus of the survey was to explore the specific motivational driving forces underlying cell phone usage, as well as the general commitment to mobile technology as a constitutive component of personal life.
First of all, the results provide dramatical support for the contention that females give much more weight to aspects of intimate, highly personalized communication: by giving much more support than males to the statement that the mobile serves to share their own thoughts, feelings and experiences (Figure 13). This gender gap persists through all age categories, and reaches is culmination point at 21, an age were males seem particularly resistant to such subjective modes of communication. Above this age, however, they seem to approximate females by becoming more open.
Symmetrically, males see the mobile more as tool for coordinating their different activities: a purpose that is most prominent among youngest males and least important among youngest girls (Figure 14). Not unexpectedly, such instrumental uses gain weight among the oldest respondents who may well have the most complex role set lead the most complicated ways of life.
In a similar vein, males attribute more importance to the statement that the mobile is instrumental for getting into contact with new people: thus underlining the previously discussed assumption that they use it more for enlarging their social networks than for just reinforcing already existing circles (Table 7).
Table 7: Importance ascribed to the statement: “I have adopted the mobile phone for meeting new people” (percentage values)
Finally, the gender divergences between expressive and instrumental phone uses is manifested in Table 8 which shows that significantly more females than males say that they have adopted their cell phone “just for fun”. In addition,. it can be demonstrated that for females, “fun” is a major motivational factor causing intensive phone usage, while males seem to be somewhat less guided by such emotional factors (Table 9).
Table 8: Importance ascribed to the statement: “I have adopted the mobile phone because it makes fun” (percentage values)
Table 9: Correlations between cell phone traffic and the support given to the statement “I use my mobile because it makes fun”: according to gender
Contradicting this “hedonistic” picture, however, there is one aspect where women give much preference to instrumental considerations security concerns. Thus, more than 70 percent of all female users (compared to about 50% males) find it “very important” that the mobile could eventually be helpful in a rare case of emergency (Table 10).
Table 10: Importance ascribed to the statement: “I have adopted the mobile phone for security reasons and cases of emergency” (percentage values)
It is a characteristic of of all communication media that behavioral usage patterns usually don’t just mirror subjective motivations and commitments, because their adoption is mainly determined by social norms and expectations (e. g. by the obligation to be reachable and to answer incoming mail or calls).
Thus, the astonishing consensus in sending and receiving mobile audio calls and SMS masks the fact that differ considerably in their subjective commitment to the new technology: e. g. in their disposition to become “addicted“ and to assimilate the new gadget as an indispensable ingredient of their personal existence.
While computers and many other, more conventional technologies (like motorcycles) seem to have their most committed enthusiasts among males, mobile phones may well be different because they support so much fundamentally female needs of social communication.
Astonishingly, our data reveal that most respondents have a rather distanced relationship to their handsets, but that women in fact are somewhat more prone than men to maintain intensive subjective commitments.
Thus, almost 70% of the men disagree with the statement that “the mobile is part of my style of life“ (Table 11), while almost half of the women support it in at least moderate ways. This gender gap is most pronounced in the youngest teenage groups (18 or less), but unexpectedly, it seems to gain strength again in young adults (aged 20 or more).
Table 11: Percent of respondents with different opinions on statement “The mobile belongs to my style of life”: according to gender and age
In addition, women show stronger positive correlations between this aspect of subjective acceptance and factual phone usage than males. Particularly, they send out much larger numbers of text messages when they have assimilated the mobile technology as an essential aspect of personal life. (Table 12)
Table 12: Correlations between cell phone traffic and the support given to the statement “the mobile is part of my style of life”: according to gender
* p < .05 ** p < .01
Similar divergences are evoked by the question whether current personal life would be unimaginable without a mobile phone. Men of all age groups are much more likely than women to refute such a notion categorically, while more women than males give it unconditioned support (Table 13). In a striking parallel to the “style of life“ question, gender gaps are most pronounced in the youngest and oldest cohorts, while they almost vanish in the intermediate group (aged 19).
Table 13: Percent of respondents with different opinions on statement “I cannot imagine life without the mobile”: according to gender and age
Again, girls seem to be more prone than boys to translate positive inner attitudes into high levels of behavioral activity, especially in the realm of text messages (Table 13). Thus, we may tentatively conclude that in the case of males, phone usage is more conditioned by extrinsic determinants like social norms and expectations as well as by considerations of practical expediency, while females are more driven by intrinsic emotional factors.
Table 14: Correlations between cell phone traffic and the support given to the statement “I cannot image to live without a mobile phone”: according to gender
Like in other Western countries where research studies have been conducted, mobile communication technology has penetrated the daily life of almost all young Swiss apprentices (born between 1980 and 1987) – males and females alike. While teenage boys are somewhat slower than girls to adopt the cell phone universally, they then tend to use it on the same scale (e. g. by producing the same monthly bills). Apart from this basic consensus in overall usage intensity, however, several gender divergences related to the ways of adoption, the modes of usage and the driving motivations of phone activities stand out.
First, some data support the notion that female phone usage is more strongly conditioned by exogenous social factors. Thus, girls are more likely than boys to have received their phone as a present, and their usage intensity is more tightly determined by family background variables (=parental education).
Secondly, girls (especially of lower age) are much more active in exchanging text messages, why boys (particularly of older age) are emitting and receiving more audio calls. This accord well with previous findings which demonstrated that females were more prone to exploit the mobile’s potential for written communication (e. g. transmitting more elaborate texts).
Thirdly, boys tend to spread their phone calls over a larger number of partners, and to use their mobile for enlarging their networks (by contacting new individuals with whom a more intimate acquaintanceship is sought). Girls seem to restrict their communication to a smaller number of (more frequently contacted) partners. However, the number of family members and relatives within their networks is about the same.
Fourth, the results support the widespread assumption that females see the phone mainly as a medium for subjective personal communication, while boys emphasize more instrumental functions (e. g. of increasing personal mobility and role coordination). However, there is one instrumental aspect to which women give more weight than males: security concerns.
Fifth, finally, significantly more women than men have assimilated the mobile phone as a central component of their personal existence: by integrating it into their lifestyle or by becoming so dependent on it that life without it has become unimaginable. More than that: such emotional commitments seem also to be more consequential, because they determine the intensity of cell phone usage (especially for text messages) more than in the case of men.
Disregarding such gender differences, the data support the conclusion that while the cell phone has easily won total victory on the behavioral level of everyday usage, it has nevertheless not (yet) become an item to which much attitudinal commitment is attached.
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 The cell phone is particularly useful for females to the degree that their movement in space is more tightly controlled than that of boys: so that they can maintain certain contacts at certain times (e. g. after midnight, when they have to be at home) only by phone. In other words: the cell phone can contribute to a levelling of gender differences even in traditional setting because control over the spatial movement of females is less consequential than in earlier times when it was synonym with total social isolation. Thus, such girls may be less likely to develop a closed "bedroom culture" (McRobbie 1978) together with their most intimate female friends.
Last Update 01.10.2016