A look at the evolution and present use of the internet on mobile phones by teenagers and other young people

My name is Jack Crawford and I’m an intern working at NZRS over the summer. The NZRS team held a strategy day recently and I was invited in and given 5 minutes to prepare a presentation to a bunch of 30 and 40 year olds about how ‘young people use the internet with their mobiles’; it went something like this:

In 2008 I received my first mobile phone, it was a Pantech flip-top with a camera with quality that must’ve hovered around the 0.2-0.3 megapixel mark. Now at this point-in-time, internet-use by mobile phones was limited simply due there being next to no websites constructed for mobile phone use which, naturally, were the only type of webpages my poor Pantech could handle. Thus, with the exception of the odd game of ‘snake’, mobile phones in 2008 for used purely for communication – and lots of it. The go-to mobile plan for me and my mates at the time was Telecom’s $10 monthly (prepaid) plan that gave you 2000 texts, which, believe it or not, was not enough for my 12/13yr old self, as I would regularly cream through those 2000 with a few days to spare (and what horrible days without texts they were).

These text-heavy days continued until mid-2009, as this was when I first created a Facebook account. Within 6 months I had quartered my text use. The difference between sending someone a text (after you had read the new message in your inbox then gone back to your sent box to remember what you said before then going back to your inbox to ready the message in context and then sending a message back without even knowing if they’ll read it within the next hour), and simply sending a Facebook message to someone you knew was sitting on a computer on the other end, simply appeared too great an opportunity to miss. However, although Facebook had become our communication option of choice, texts were still heavily used throughout the weekday days, as no one could access Facebook on the computers (let alone their phones) at school.

And now we reach the present day, with all previous limitations regarding mobile phones and the internet having been well-and-truly overcome, speedy internet is available to all in most of the country and the majority of mobile phones support website browsing (whether mobile sites or not). The combined forces of greater internet accessibility and more powerful mobile phones meant further cuts to my text use. Texts were only used if I thought a Facebook message or Snapchat picture wouldn’t reach the recipient within the time I wanted, which was not a thought I had often.

So where does this short story on the demise of texting lead? These days, young people heave a wealth of mobile communication options, due to most of us being members of multiple online communicatory platforms, so the real question is: which one do young people choose, and when? Well this lead me, in the heat of my 5 minutes of preparation, to coin the phrase ‘perceived levels of formality’ (PLoF). This theory works principally on the idea that young people adapt how they communicate with people to how formal the conversation (or the recipient) is. The scale begins with a high level of formality and decreases as such as you move down:

  • Email
  • Calling
  • Texting
  • Facebook messaging (or similar)
  • Snapchat

The top of the scale would suffice for communicating with people like your grandparents and your parents, or potential employers. If we were to move down to the middle of the scale which include good friends, close co-workers, etc. Moving down towards the bottom we are reaching the low level-formality conversations, by the time we have hit Snapchat (or even below that, Tinder) these are conversations you can have with people you have just met (or never met) that you would not be comfortable beginning a full on conversation with via text or calling (or heaven forbid, emailing). All of this isn’t to say that this doesn’t occur with older people, it just appears to be that the older you are, the further up the PLoF scale you generally associate: older people prefer calling and texting, and younger people prefer Facebook messaging and Snapchat (and again, Tinder). The scale also appears to draw strong correlations with the amount of time it takes have a conversation (perhaps with the exception of calling) so this also aligns with the idea that young people prefer much faster methods of communication.

So with the communication side of mobiles out of the way, what else do we young guns do with them? Well, up until about 4 years ago (from memory), mobile internet browser use was quite high simply due to there being no other app we could use to access the internet. These days, apps have taken over, chiefly in the areas of social media and online banking, but also in the areas of news and sport (with a focus on live updating). Thus, as with texting, browser use on phones by youths has decreased heavily and is now usually reserved for such undertakings as finding the address of ‘that pizza place’.