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NEW STUDY: Mobile Phones Put the 'Social' in Social Media

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"Because I am on my phone I will not pay attention to the people around me or especially the traffic around me. I feel like my mobile device often takes me out of the real world and into a completely different one." -- U.S. college student

When was the last time you saw a 20-year-old without a phone in his or her hands? Ever wonder what the world was coming to?

Mobile phones, those always-on, pocket- and purse-sized media platforms, ARE reshaping what the world is coming to. The vibrating and beeping non-stop push notices of posts and messages and tags are prompting young adults to think about connecting to their virtual lives more than to the world around them. And this is not just an American trend -- this is happening globally.

A new study on the mobile habits of global youth, has found that not only are college students absolutely tethered to their phones, they are absolutely tethered to their friends on phones. The Tethered World study, directed by Prof. Paul Mihailidis of Emerson College in Boston, evaluated the mobile habits of students of 52 nationalities, attending universities in eight countries, on three continents. Researchers had the 800 students track their mobile use over a 24-hour period this past spring 2012. Following the day-long tracking, the students completed an in-depth survey and wrote a 500-word narrative about their media habits.

The study found that students use their phones overwhelmingly to text, share and comment via social networks. Far down on the list of what they do with their mobile phones is reading news, or even gaming. Admitted one student: "I am very diligent about returning wall posts, tweets, comments and other feeds that are on my phone. Without this ability, I think it would stress me out or make me anxious about not knowing what is going on."

Here are five of the top conclusions of the study:

  1. Facebook and Twitter not only are the dominant presence in the lives of students across the globe, they are having a homogenizing effect on how students live around the world. Whether in Bournemouth, Beirut or Boston, students reported that Facebook, Twitter and other social networks were the way they hear from and communicate to their friends and the world. "Twitter has become the new CNN," as one student said. And the study suggests that for students, mobile phones are the new remote controls.
  2. Mobile phones are used to share and comment on other people's social spaces -- and information and news of all kinds is especially valued when it has a great "gee whiz" factor that makes young adults want to pass it on. Said one student: "I don't usually share articles, just some great music news, or a YouTube video that I think is funny or is a music video."
  3. This is not Gen-X or Gen-Y: this is the 'Tethered Generation.' Around the world, mobile phones are integral to students' identity. Students self-reported that they were "addicted," claiming it is literally "impossible" to go a day without a phone. The tracking data reinforced students' heavy use across the world. As one student reported: "I check my phone literally every 2 or 3 minutes for updates on text messages, Twitter, or even Facebook." Said another: "The mobile phone has become a part of us: our best friend who will save all our secrets, pleasures and sorrows."
  4. Students use mobile phones to network with others -- and being a part of that network is more real than the real world. For students, phones don't just facilitate conversations, they connect them to others in ways that are not only satisfying, but increasingly paramount. Observed one student: "One thing that seems kind of funny to me is one experience that I had last week, we had an earthquake, a big one, and a lot of people instead of being alert and try to save themselves, they just started tweeting about what was going on. They were so attached to their social networks that they cared more about letting people know what was happening instead of evacuating the building."
  5. On mobile phones, apps are like cable TV. While they appreciate the thousands of options, students really only use a few apps. While a majority of the students in the study had 16 or more apps on their phones, they reported they only used 3 or 4 apps regularly. Said one student: "The three Apps that I use the most [are] Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. I love being able to see what my friends are up to and look at their pictures. I also enjoy the diverse combination of news articles, humor, and lifestyle pieces that these various platforms provide."

More than any other platform, mobile phones have initiated a global youth digital culture, by making content and comment available all the time, wherever students are. The result is that students not only take in endless amounts of information, but personalize and reorganize it.

In some ways, this is good news: individual voices are speaking out on a broad-based, democratizing platform that by its sheer existence helps to foster transparency and freedom of expression. Students share content and express their opinions all day, every day. Said one study participant: "Mobile phones allow us to participate in areas of the media which we would otherwise be excluded from."

But there is a cautionary note from the Tethered World study. As global youths bring their interests, their friends and their very identities online, the data that defines them can be gathered and abused by those other than friends. As one student worriedly mused: "Our lives have become available to anyone who can access them -- which is just about everyone everywhere in the world."

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For full details about the study results, university partners and methodology, click here. This column was written with assistance from Dr. Paul Mihailidis.