One of the most frequent questions I use to get from parents of teenagers about two or three years ago went something like this: “Should I get my child a cell phone?” Today, parents are asking this: “At what age should I get my child a cell phone?” In short, it’s no longer a matter of if but when. While I was in Portugal last year teaching at a summer Digital Media Institute I was surprised to learn that across parts of Europe it is not uncommon for kids as young as five and six to own a phone. When I asked, “what in the world does a five-year old do with a phone?” the most common reply was play games. Phones are beginning to trickle down to younger and younger American kids, too. According to Mediamark Research and Intelligence 11.9% of children 6-11 owned cellphones in 2005. In 2009, 20% owned cellphones.
Even among the young kids who do not own a phone they certainly know how to use them thanks to the growing presence of app-based mobile platforms like the iPhone. A game designer friend of mine recently referred to the iPhone as a “pass back toy.” Confused, I asked him “what do you mean?” He explained. “You know, driving in the car and the child in the back seat asks, ‘mom can you pass me your iPhone?’”
Yesterday Microsoft introduced its Kin phone, a device the software giant hopes will generate buzz and business for the company’s entertainment division. The Kin and Kin One are designed to make social networking applications like Facebook andTwitter the hub of the mobile phone experience. Instead of the standard interface that displays the various functions of the phone, the Kin devices display status updates from your friends. The Kin devices, “are aimed at 15-30-year-olds who are social networking enthusiasts,” says Robert Bach, president of Microsoft’s entertainment and devices division.
This is a bid for young mobiles. On the surface, the main idea driving the development of the Kin–that teens spend much of their time connecting to their social networks– makes a lot of sense. Teens are heavy users of social network sites. This is no longer a fad but an established fact of young life in the digital age. While the platforms and tools may change the desire to connect with their peers anytime and anywhere is likely permanent for the foreseeable future. According to the Pew Internet & American Life Project 7 of 10 teens use social network sites. Among older teens, ages 16-18, more than 8 of 10 use social network sites. Computer-mediated social networks give today’s teens something that previous generations of teens coveted but could never truly claim–a space to congregate, call their own, and is separate from the adult world.
In our research with teens it is clear that the mobile phone is used primarily as a device to connect and communicate with peers through texting and social network sites. They also enjoy snapping and posting pictures online. From the moment they wake up to the time that they finally fall asleep at night (usually with their phone in bed with them) connecting, communicating, and sharing with their peers via their mobile phones is a non-stop activity. Just last year there was widespread speculation about why teens were not using Twitter. Today, teens are constantly checking their mobile for tweets from their friends and favorite celebrities. For a variety of reasons including costs, lifestyle, and what they value from their mobile, the vast majority of teens own what are called feature rather than smartphones. Though not nearly as powerful and capable of the multiple functions enabled by smartphones feature phones work quite well for young teens. This is especially evident among the 16-and 17 year-olds we have been doing research with this year.
By the time they enter high school, the mobile phone really functions as the hub of teens social and mobile media lives. The phone is inseparable from their bodies and is the main lifeline to their peers. In his post for the ReadWriteWeb, Microsoft’s New Phone Gets the Social/App Balance Wrong, Marshall Kilpatrick maintains that Microsoft’s new phone collides with the dominant trend in mobile–the rise of mobile apps. Kilpatrick argues that the Kin places too much of an emphasis on the social uses of the mobile and too little on the growing trend of phones as a mobile application delivery system. But is this true for teens?
I wonder if the use of apps for young people is primarily about casual and mobile gaming. In other words, at what point in the life-cycle do non-gaming and entertainment based apps matter? A phone that does not offer gaming as a part of the young user experience will likely have limited appeal. But what about a phone that does not offer apps? The Kin seems to get the significance of the social in young people’s engagement with mobile. The question Microsoft will soon need to answer is at what point do apps, especially non-gaming and entertainment based apps, matter to young social networking enthusiasts? I don’t think we know the answer to that question yet. There is even some evidence that despite their wide appeal most people tend to use only a handful of the apps that they download. And the apps that teens tend to care about–the ones that help them connect more easily to their social networks–are central to the Kin’s design and marketing campaign.
Something else that we are learning in our research with young mobiles is that they tend to switch phones frequently. In the past they upgraded their phones as much for aesthetics or the look of the phone as anything else. The phone after all is a main fashion accessory for teens, a cultural statement, and expression of identity. But upgrades today are just as likely to be about the functions or the capabilities of their mobile phone. The phone after all is a main tool for sharing their lives and the content they create with peers.
My take on the Kin? If it is easily affordable it has a chance to play a role in the life cycle of young technology users at a time when peers–what they are doing and who they are doing it with–is all consuming. That’s a brief period before other things become equally important like which college to attend and what’s happening in the world around them. Microsoft says the Kin targets 15-30 year-olds. I can see the 15-18-year-old market trying it out but beyond that the Kin will likely have to expand what users can do to appeal to their older target.
What is means to be social and connected today is constantly evolving throughout the life-cycle of the young and the digital. So to is their adoption of mobile phones.
Follow The Young and the Digital on Twitter @ scraigwatkins.