Some 85 percent of Americans have cell phones, about half of them smartphones, according to Pew's survey of 2,254 adults last spring. More than a third of respondents said they "couldn't live without" their phones. But based on age, cell phone users value different things about the devices.
Americans under 40 were more likely to mention access to the Internet, email and text messaging as cell-phone qualities they prize. Older Americans said they primarily like that mobile phones are convenient and helpful in an emergency. Aaron Smith, the study's author, says it's striking that 20-year-olds and 40-year-olds report similar attachment to the technology.
"They have similar demands in terms of what's required of them in this world where people can reach them at all times, despite being in very different places in their lives," Smith said. "If you're someone in college, it's probably your buddy wondering why you're not at the party, or your study partner wondering where you are. Whereas if you're in your mid-40s, maybe it's a spouse or a child."
Compared with older cell phone owners, younger people also reported different rules of etiquette attached to phone use. Those in their 20s and 30s reported being more likely to get complaints about not responding promptly to text messages and calls, while also being told more often they spend too much time with their phones.
In turn, younger people also worry more about how often they're on their mobile phones. Nearly a quarter of 18-to-24-year-olds said they think they spend too much time on their phones compared with 14 percent of people who are 25 to 44 years old. Only a handful of those 55 and older reported having this concern.
Exploring the social and cultural trappings that have come with the ubiquity of mobile phones is nuanced work because the effects of even dramatic technological changes can be difficult to ascertain in real time. But there are hints all around us: Checking a cell phone has become an automatic gesture that evokes the way people once reached for pocket watches. Designer Ian Bogost wrote an essay for The Atlantic in which he argues that mobile phones have replaced the cultural space that smoking tobacco once occupied, giving us "the most distinctive social tic since cigarettes."
It's a habit that's with many Americans 24 hours a day. In Pew's study, some 44 percent of cell phone users reported sleeping with their phone next to them so as not to miss any calls, with more than half of younger cell users reporting the habit.
Three-quarters of younger cell phone users say they frequently check their phone for messages or alerts, even if they don't hear a notification. People who make more than $75,000 per year are "significantly" more likely than other cell phone users to say their phone makes it hard to disconnect from work, the study says. Only 6 percent of those earning under $50,000 say their phones make it a lot harder to unplug at the end of the day.
"For a lot of those groups, not only have they spent a large portion of their lives using these devices, but so have their friends," Smith said. "So it's not only how they live their lives but how their friends live their lives - making sure that they don't miss calls, checking to make sure no one's tried to get a hold of them."
Phone etiquette also appears to be evolving with technology. Pew found that people report encountering fewer cell phone users having intrusively loud conversations in public. Thirty-nine percent of those surveyed say they see this kind of behavior often, compared with 50 percent who said so in a 2006 survey. Maybe not surprisingly, a much smaller number - just 6 percent of those surveyed - admitted to having loud or annoying public cell phone conversations themselves.
"People noticing other people being loud and annoying is still fairly common but it's actually gone down as texting has become more common," Smith said. "This is sort of the flip side, though: As they're texting more, they're annoying their dinner partners but being less annoying to the people one table over."
Something that hasn't changed much in recent years: The number of cell phone users who engage in sexually suggestive text messaging. People who report sending and receiving the most so-called sexts are 25- to 34-year-olds. Within that group, about a third of those surveyed said they had received a sex-themed text message, and 14 percent said they have sent one. Overall, sexting recipients and senders are at 15 percent and 6 percent, respectively. Those numbers mirror Pew's findings from 2010.
Younger people are most engaged with their phones, so it follows that they're both more enthusiastic about the benefits of having a cell phone and stronger in their criticism of the downsides.
"People have become very attached and very attuned to their phones, and they see some real benefits from that," Smith said. "But they also express some ambivalence about what that attachment involves. They love to hate the convenience and connectivity their phones give them."