By Bradley Johnson
A majority—57 percent—of teens age 13-17 now have a cell phone, but that’s far below the 80 percent of adults 18-plus who own a phone. Still, for a glimpse of the future, look no further than Generation Wireless.
Cell-phone users age 13-17 are connected to their phones by ear, eye and touch like no other age group. They are far more likely than other demographic groups to use a broad range of data services, and they will be first in line to try emerging offerings like cell-phone TV.
“They’re crazy for mobile,” said Mark Donovan, VP-senior analyst with M:Metrics, a research firm that tracks wireless content and applications. “They see [a phone] as this little digital communicator that they can take with them wherever they go.”
Their young-adult peers—age 18-24—are more likely than younger teens to snap cell-phone pictures and buy ringtones, according to M:Metrics data. But for most wireless content and features, young users are the biggest enthusiasts.
Generation Wireless has been a digital demo from birth, growing up after the dawn of cellular (the first U.S. service went live in 1983) and with the Internet (the first major Web browser debuted in 1993).
Getting a cell phone is a rite of passage for teens. Just 12 percent of kids age 8-12 have a wireless phone, but that jumps to nearly half—49 percent—for ages 13-15, according to a Harris Interactive youth survey last year. By age 18-21, cell-phone penetration (81 percent) is in line with the average for all adults (80 percent).
The top reason teens cite for getting a cell phone is safety, according to Telephia, a market research firm. That’s not surprising: Parents decide when the kids go wireless. “Parents love kids to have mobile phones,” said Glen LeBlanc, research director for wireless services at NPD Group. “It’s an electronic leash.”
Parents pick their children’s wireless service in about two-thirds (68 percent) of cases, Telephia said. Family plans are the standard; 62 percent of teens age 13-17 are on a family plan for wireless, according to NPD’s Mobile Consumer Track. NPD said another 15 percent of teens use a prepaid phone—such as TracFone, Virgin, Boost or T-Mobile To Go—that effectively caps their use.
Parents set limits
Most of the time, mom and dad foot the bill for wireless. That gives parents more reason to set limits on data features, such as text messaging, which carry tolls. “I have to believe that in households across the nation, there are ongoing negotiations about what’s appropriate to do with your cell phone,” said M:Metrics’ Donovan.
But there’s no denying that the biggest users of premium wireless features—messaging, game downloads, photo services, sports information, entertainment news—are young consumers having fun at someone else’s expense. Among kids age 13-17—the heaviest overall users of such services—just 18 percent pay for their cell service, said Mr. LeBlanc. Among the second heaviest users—18-24—38 percent pay the bills.
Teens age 13-17 are three times as likely as the average cell-phone owner to use their phones to access shopping guides and content from men’s and women’s magazines, according to M:Metrics. They use phone features to get restaurant and movie info at more than twice the national average.
Higher bills could be ahead as young cell-phone users show the most interest in emerging services. For those age 13-17, about 17 percent say they are somewhat or very likely to subscribe to a live TV service, according to M:Metrics; 13.4 percent of cell users age 18-24 expect to do so. Interest falls sharply for older age groups.
Will young consumers pull back from wireless when they have to pay? Not likely. Cell phones are central to a generation that stays connected at all times to friends, family and the world. “It’s going to be amazing to watch these people grow up,” said Mr. Donovan. “It’s going to be a mix of ruling the world and playing videogames.” Not necessarily in that order.