Hardly any of the conventional wisdom seems right, and previously buzz-worthy articles on these new digital natives are demonstrably wrong. For example, the teenagers in my neighborhood still know what VHS and audio cassettes are.
To fill this gap in our knowledge about digital users, I gathered a small group of teenagers—including friends of my kids, neighbors, and others—and asked them some questions about their mobile devices and their behaviors when using digital devices. I didn’t include my own kids because I have way too many devices and different access policies, and I didn’t want to skew the results. I also determined that none of the kids who I interviewed have parents who are too involved in the mobile, design, or technology industries.
Even after my having interviewed this larger group of teens, be aware that I don’t think my data represents a statistically meaningful sampling. I won’t be fudging the data I’ve got—for example, declaring that 74% of teenagers have a smartphone or anything like that. In fact, you won’t find any charts or graphs at all in this column. However, I think the data that I did obtain is interesting, and it’s already serving as a reminder to me of how much individual users can vary from our expectations—even if they live right next door.
The Participants and Their Devices
To make sure that the information I obtained was as true and unbiased as the data from any group interview could be, I first gathered a little bit of basic information—some of it by direct observation. In most cases, I confirmed each participant’s actual device name and OS level by having each of them poke around in settings. I also compared their impressions regarding their most used mobile apps to the apps actually running on their device.
In addition, all of the kids provided a bit of basic demographic data about themselves. All of the participants live near my home in the suburbs of Kansas City. All of these teens live in single-family homes or duplexes. Most live with both of their parents, neither of which is a technology worker or UX designer.
Now, let’s meet the teens who participated in the interviews.
Lucas is in the 7th grade and attends middle school.
He brought along his iPhone 3 (iOS 6.1.3) in an Otterbox. It’s his first phone and was a hand-me-down from his mom. He does not pay the service fees. He said, “I like it, but it’s really slow because it’s an old one. It was passed down from my mom. When she buys a new one, her old one will go to me.”
Lucas also has a tablet that he didn’t bring to the interview and couldn’t adequately describe. He has an Asus notebook computer at home, running Windows 8, which he prefers to the previous version of the operating system. Most of his friends have smartphones, and most use Android.
Elijah is also in the 7th grade and in middle school.
He has a Samsung Galaxy Exhibit, an entry-level smartphone running Android 4.1.2, that his mom and older brother bought for him new.
Elijah also has a Nintendo 3DS with Internet access and can use a desktop computer at home that he shares with the rest of his family. His dad has a notebook computer for work that Elijah cannot use.
Isaiah, brother of Elijah, is in the 9th grade and a freshman in high school.
He carries an LG Optimus Prime, running Android 4.1.2. He picked out the phone, but did not pay for it. His first choice—which had a bigger screen, a better camera, and a faster processor—was too expensive, but this phone was a good second choice for him.
Isaiah also has access to the shared desktop computer at home.
Kyle, a friend of Isaiah’s who tagged along to the interview, is also a freshman in high school.
He told us that he has an iPhone, but in fact, it is actually an iPod Touch 4G that he bought with his own money when he was 11. It runs iOS6 and has a case because, as Kyle said, “These things like to fall and crack and break, and I don’t want mine doing that. I’ve had it for three years, and I haven’t broken it yet.”
Kyle’s iPod is rooted and has been otherwise hacked. While he has many phone features installed, the device relies on WiFi. There are both a desktop and a notebook computer in Kyle’s home that he can use. One is running Windows XP and the other Windows 7. His dad refuses to upgrade to Windows 8.1.
Elaine is in the 8th grade and attends middle school with one of my daughters, who I kicked out of the room during the interview.
She has some sort of LG text-centric, prepaid feature phone that has a slide-out QWERTY keypad. She does have Internet access, but it uses up minutes so she rarely uses it. Her plan is to buy her own phone when she gets a job.
Her tablet is a Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 7.0, running Android 4.0.3. She received it for Christmas a couple of years ago, in a case with kickstand. She is aware that she could attach a keyboard to it, but never does so. Elaine’s friends almost exclusively have smartphones, but she doesn’t feel left out or shamed because she likes her “small phone.” There is no computer at home, and Elaine does not feel that she needs one for schoolwork.
Lily is a 16-year-old Junior in high school.
She has an iPhone 4S, running iOS 7, that she selected herself, but that her parents pay for. This phone replaced a Galaxy S3, and she had several other phones before that.
Lily selected the iPhone because, after breaking her Galaxy S3, she decided Samsungs are too fragile. She received her first phone when she was in the 4th grade. She also has a MacBook of some sort, which is hers to use exclusively.
Brent, Lily’s boyfriend, is a 17-year-old senior in high school.
He uses a Galaxy S3, which he keeps in a big case. He selected and paid for the phone himself, replacing a Galaxy S2. He was also given his first phone starting in grade school. He pays for the phone himself, but sometimes cannot afford the bill so, as during the interview, he must rely on WiFi for connectivity.
Brent has no computer at home, but uses friend’s computers such as Lily’s or stays at school if he needs to use a computer.
Mary is 15 years old and a sophomore in high school.
She has a 10-key-style feature phone of an unknown brand, on a prepaid plan, that she uses only for voice and text. She has had mobile phones since she was in the 6th grade.
Mary also carries an iPhone 4, running iOS7, with no service plan. Her plan is to buy a SIM for the iPhone when she has sufficient income to replace her feature phone. She also has access to a Windows 7 desktop computer at home, whenever she needs it.
Sydney is Mary’s friend and is a 15-year-old freshman in high school.
She has an iPhone 4S, running iOS7.
Sydney also has a Kindle Fire that she did not bring to the interview and her own MacBook Pro.
Communicating About Digital Device Use: The Interviews
Steven: What do you use your different devices for? When you’re at home, do you use your phone? When do you use the computer instead?
Lucas: “I go on Instagram, and I text people to find out if they can come over or we can go to the park. I play games and watch YouTube on the computer, and I also play games on the tablet.”
Elijah: “I’d sometimes use the Internet on the 3DS, but that was before I had the phone. Now I use that. I mainly use the computer when typing something for school. I only have one friend connected to my phone. And some other friends connected to my Steam account I talk to in my games.”
Isaiah: “The computer is mainly for gaming. The phone is mainly contacts and portable gaming. Most games on the phone are games that I play myself. I have an emulator for a friend’s GameBoy and play games for free on my phone.”
Kyle: “I use the computer quite a bit, for gaming mainly. I text on my phone, and when I am on the computer using games, I also use Steam chat to talk to friends who are also gaming.”
Elaine: “I use the phone for texting. I call and text, but mostly text. On the tablet, I use YouTube, Tumblr, and Internet. To look stuff up like Japanese”—showing off some characters she’d written on her arm. “Tumblr has ruined my life. I sit on there a lot—blog and reblog stuff.”
Lily: “I use Netflix and do typing stuff for school on the computer. Social stuff and texting is on the phone.”
Mary: “I text and call people on the [feature] phone, but when I have WiFi, I can text other people who have iPhones and iPads and stuff like that. I also Snapchat people and Facetime people. The computer is for schoolwork and updating iTunes.”
Steven: What do you use most on the phone?
Lucas: “Texting, I think.”
Elijah: “Probably YouTube.”
Isaiah: “YouTube, my [game] emulators, Words with Friends, and a [Doctor Who] sonic screwdriver app, which you point at people and make noise.”
Kyle: “TextPlus, which is how I can text people since it’s not a phone, and Cydia, which lets me program changes to the phone.”
Lily: “Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Vine, Flappy Bird, Facebook….”
Mary: “Besides Snapchat and Facetime, Pinterest, Music, Tumblr. I hardly ever post to Tumblr.”
Sydney: “Messaging and Pinterest. On the Kindle Fire, [I have] over 1,000 books—though I don’t read them as much as real books—and about 20 games. And I watch Netflix on it.
Steven: Okay, now let’s prove it. Open up the list of apps running on your phone, and tell me what you see there.
Lucas: “Messages, Instagram, App Store, Game, Safari, Camera, YouTube, Music, Phone, Kik for messaging, Settings, Mail, iBook, Notes, Clock.”
Elijah: “PG Viewer [a game of sorts], YouTube, Chrome.”
Isaiah: “Browser, JetpackJoyride, YouTube, Messaging, Monster Shooter, Contacts—which I don’t know why,” removing it from the list—Email, Facebook, and Play Store.”
Kyle: “I kill everything since they drain [the] battery. But I use iCleaner Pro every night before bed, Tumblr, and SmartGlass for the Xbox, which makes the device a controller for the Xbox.”
Isaiah: “But not a very good one.”
Elaine: “YouTube, Internet, Play Music, Play Store, Calculator, Gallery, Tumblr, New Music, where I download music for free, Gmail.”
Lily: “Flappy Bird, Settings, Text Message, Phone, Music DL, Twitter, Snapchat, Facebook, Instagram, Photos, Email, FB Messenger, Maps, Camera, Photo Editor, Music, Facetime.”
Brent: “Twitter, Music, Facebook, I have a Gameboy emulator, texting, Google Chrome, Flappy Bird, Snapchat, Waze.”
Mary: “I also clear my apps a lot, but Pinterest, Music, Messaging, Safari, games, Facetime, Snapchat.”
Sydney: “Messages, Snapchat, and Pinterest. If you don’t clear them out it makes your phone slow.”
Steven: How much do you use email to contact people?
Elijah: “All I really use email for is to make accounts.”
Isaiah: “That sounds right, to make accounts. And to contact family members every now and then.”
Kyle: “A little.”
Elaine: “I use Gmail on the tablet. My friends do answer them.”
Lily: “You mean DM on Twitter? Email? No.”
Brent: “I email my teachers a lot. And I get emails from like GameStop and stuff. Which I scan over, but I usually just archive them. And my schedule for work I get over email, too.”
Sydney: “I am in photography, so I have to email my editors about story angles and so forth.”
Steven: What else do you use to contact people?
Kyle: “Facebook. I don’t have any others. No one sends me any.”
Elaine: “No, my mom won’t let me have a Facebook account yet. And nothing else like Snapchat or Twitter. I am forever alone in this world. Not many of my friends have Snapchat either.”
Elijah: “I get a Vine sent [to me] every now and then. But then I have to delete it because it takes so much space. I need one of those mini SD cards.”
Lily: “Twitter. Facebook.”
Brent: “Snapchat is less like, open, where everyone can see it. You just send like three-second pictures to people you know. I use Facebook a lot. The Messenger, because, if my phone is ever shut off, I just use Facebook instead of text. Because everyone has a Facebook, so it’s easy to get ahold of them.”
Mary: “I don’t use Facebook. It’s kind of dying.”
Sydney: “I hardly use Facebook anymore.”
Lucas: “I don’t have a Facebook or Twitter account. My mom would probably let me, but I just like Instagram. Instagram and Facebook are a lot alike.”
Isaiah: “The only social network I have besides my games is Facebook.”