One of the most pervasive technological influences over the past two decades has been the cell phone. "Like the television in the 1950s and Internet in the 1990s, mobile telephony has emerged as one of the defining technologies of our time" (Campbell & Park, 2008, p. 371). Mobile technology has rapidly become an essential communication tool. Although the United States of America (U.S.) has been slower to adopt mobile technology than European and Asian countries, the U.S. has made quantum leaps over the past decade. In 1995 nearly 34 million people in the U.S. had a cell phone; as of 2006, the number of subscribers was 233 million, or 76% of the U.S. population (U.S. Census Bureau, 2008). According to the Pew Institute, cell phone ownership among U.S. adults age 18+ has grown from 65% in 2004 to 82% in 2010 (Smith, 2011). Now that cell phone ownership is nearly universal, teachers, parents, scholars, and researchers are beginning to ponder the social and psychological ramifications of this technology.
One of the biggest surprises surrounding the growth of mobile communication technology is the acceptance and widespread use of cell phones among youth (Ling, 2005). People of all ages are now able to multitask and be distracted by any event at any time. The phenomenal increase in cell phone ownership among adolescents and young adults has motivated researchers to ponder how these technologies might influence social skills, social interaction, and social activity. For instance, behaviors such as texting while driving (Lee, 2007), staying up late to communicate with friends (Van den Bulck, 2003), frequent communication with select others (Bryant, Sanders-Jackson, & Smallwood, 2006), and ease of cheating in school (Campbell, 2006) have already elicited scholarly attention.
It is clear that cell phones are desired by members of the younger generation. Among Smith's (2011) nationally representative sample, 96% of U.S. residents aged 18 to 29 owned a cell phone in 2011: the estimate for all U.S. adults (82%) was somewhat lower. Teens and young adults use the short message service (SMS: text messaging) more than any other age group, and they use their cell phones for voice-to-voice communication less frequently than any other age group (Horrigan, 2008; Rainie & Keeter, 2006; Reid & Reid, 2007). Seventy-two percent of U.S. adults use their phones to send and receive text messages (Smith, 2011) and this estimate is consistent across ethnicity (70% White/Anglo, 76% Black, 83% Hispanic). Smith also reported that nearly half (49%) of these text messages (average, 39 per day) provided a means to say hello or to chat, or simply to connect with significant others.
Because the United States has been slower to adopt mobile technology than countries in Europe and Asia (Campbell & Park, 2008), much of what we know about the social and psychological impacts of cell phone use has come from research conducted outside of the United States. The U.S. is just beginning to see the impact of widespread cell phone use, and as a result researchers are beginning to study how people in the United States are using mobile technology (Castells et al., 2007).
Much of the existing cell phone research has been exploratory, often viewing cell phone use from a functional perspective in an effort to identify relations between use and practical variables such as fashion, affection, safety, mobility, relaxation, reassurance, planning, and immediate access (Fortunati, 2001; Leung & Wei, 2000; Ling, 2000; Reid & Reid, 2007). Smith (2011) surveyed 2,277 adults (age 18+) and found that cell phones provide a sense of safety (91%), convenience (88%), and entertainment (39%). A few studies have documented distinct gender differences in communication patterns, perceived emancipation from parents, and emotional reliability (Ling, 2001, 2005; Ling & Yttri, 2005; Park, 2005; Vincent, 2006). Even fewer studies have documented psychosocial outcomes attributable to cell phone use in areas of social networking and identity development (Castells et al. …