By Bradley Johnson
A majority-57 percent-of teens age 13 to 17 now have a cellphone, but that’s far below the 80 percent of adults 18-plus who own a mobile phone. Still, for a glimpse of the future, look no further than Generation Wireless.
Cellphone users ages 13 to 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 cellphone data services, and they will be first in line to try emerging offerings such as cellphone TV.
“They’re crazy for mobile,” said Mark Donovan, VP and 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-ages 18 to 24-are more likely than younger teens to snap cellphone 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 cellphone is a rite of passage for teens. Just 12 percent of kids ages 8 to 12 have a wireless phone, but that jumps to nearly half-49 percent-for ages 13 to 15, according to a 2005 Harris Interactive youth survey. By ages 18 to 21, cellphone penetration (81 percent) is in line with the average for all adults (80 percent).
The top reason teens cite for getting a cellphone 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 choose their children’s wireless service in about two-thirds (68 percent) of cases, Telephia said. Family plans are the standard; 62 percent of teens ages 13 to 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.
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, that carry additional fees. “I have to believe that in households across the nation, there are ongoing negotiations about what’s appropriate to do with your cellphone,” said M:Metrics’ Mr. 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 to 17-the heaviest overall users of such services-just 18 percent pay for their cell service, Mr. LeBlanc said. Among the second heaviest users-18 to 24-38 percent pay the bills.
Higher bills could be ahead, as young cellphone users show the most interest in emerging services. For those ages 13 to 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 ages 18 to 24 expect to do so. Interest falls sharply for older age groups.