How do today’s students use mobiles?

Game of phones

Mobile phones have fast become the most pervasive technology in our daily lives. The first experimental mobile call was made in 1973. Just four decades later, over three quarters of UK adults own a smartphone and some 32 billion are expected to be purchased this year.


The most extraordinary aspect of the mobile phenomenon is that our devices are so much more than just phones for making calls. For many, they have become the primary point of access to digital and a remote control for life. In the UK, we collectively glance at our smartphones more than one billion times a day.

A new survey from Deloitte, of 4,000 people, from a nationally representative sample, shows how integral mobiles have become in our daily lives, with a particular impact among 18-24 year olds. Digital strategists in higher education take note: one of your key markets differs considerably from the wider population in the mobile devices they own, how they use them and their appetite for mobile interactivity.

Device preferences

Let’s start with the first of those three distinctions. Deloitte’s research found that 18-24 year olds show a marked preference towards premium devices and upgrade more frequently than older smartphone owners. Unsurprisingly, Apple is this age groups favourite smartphone brand with 43 per cent owning an iPhone compared to 29 per cent of other adults. More surprising is that 45 per cent of 18-24 year olds told us that they buy the latest devices purely because they like them – not because their existing device is out-of-date – compared to 32 per cent of those aged 25 and above.

Educational institutions that want to invest in mobile interaction with students should be encouraged by these device preferences. Obviously it means that their apps need to be available for multiple operating systems. But it also means that students are more likely to own devices that are compatible with the latest app specifications and offer a smooth user experience. Cheaper phones can be great for calls, browsing and messaging but some can be tested when their user is flipping between apps and pushing the tech to its limits. Universities can make the most of their audience of early adopters.

Use among millennials

The next differentiating factor is how 18-24 year olds use their mobile devices. As many parents will attest, they stand out in their devotion to their smartphones. Almost a fifth told us that they look at their phone immediately after waking – and not just to turn off an alarm – while almost a third check it within five minutes of waking. Within half an hour of waking up, more than 70 per cent of 18-24 year olds have looked at their phones. By comparison, just ten per cent of people over 25 check their phones straight away and one fifth within five minutes.

Throughout the day, 46 per cent of people aged 18-24 told us that they look at their phone either ‘all the time’ or ‘very often’, even when they have not received a notification of any kind. That compares to just 26 per cent of people in other age groups.

And that same level of commitment continues to the end of the day. Forty-one per cent of 18-24 year olds look at their phones less than five minutes before shutting their eyes to sleep, and not just to set an alarm. Only 24 per cent of the older age groups show that supreme level of dedication.

These statistics suggest that the student population may well be the UK’s most distracted demographic group, with the strongest bond to their devices of all age groups. Universities that are developing or refreshing their digital strategies may want to be sure that mobile is central to their approach.

The 18-24 age range does not just stand out for how often they use their mobiles – they also stand out for what they do with them. Our survey suggests that they are much like the wider population when it comes to making phone calls, sending SMS text messages and using emails. However, younger mobile users have been quicker to take up the newer possibilities that their devices offer. They are more likely to communicate through social networks on the smartphones, use a range of instant messaging services, make video calls and make voice calls over the internet rather than traditional phone systems.

They also watch more video on their mobiles than any other age group. Some 55 per cent of 18-24 year olds use their smartphones to watch videos like those on YouTube, 21 per cent watch video stories on news apps and 12 per cent stream TV or movies. They are also marginally more receptive to video advertising. For the wider population, watching video declines with age. That doesn’t mean that younger people will drift away from video as they get older – it means that the medium has just become established thanks to faster mobile networks and better wi-fi availability.

For universities, these user trends show how institutions need to look to the forward-edge of mobile use in designing their digital profile, if they want to impress and engage their target audience.

Weight of mobile expectations

Finally, the third factor that differentiates 18-24 year olds is the weight of their mobile expectations. More than any other group, younger people expect to be able to use their mobiles to manage their lives. This year’s undergraduates will have been eleven when iPhones came on the market – they will never have known a time when mobiles were not our ever-present companions.

For higher education institutions focussed on this age group, that means their digital infrastructure will need to support the latest technologies and platforms. But is also points to opportunities including greater use of mobiles for taking payments and administrative transactions. Our survey found that younger people are the most comfortable of all age groups with these activities, including online banking. Some 48 per cent use their mobile devices to check balances weekly compared to 31 per cent of those over 25. There seems to be a genuine appetite for mobile payments among 18-24 year olds – when we asked those who had not previously used phones for in-store purchases about the scenarios in which they would find mobile payments beneficial, more than a third said they would it useful to pay for taxis, public transport, parking and buying fast-food by mobile. The appetite for mobile payments was markedly less in other age groups.

Deloitte’s mobile survey shows how 18-24 year olds – the typical undergraduate age range for many of our universities – are more at home with mobile than the rest of us. Higher education institutions need to make sure their digital strategies recognise how pervasive mobile technology has become in younger peoples’ lives, that they make fuller use of their devices than other age groups and that their expectation for mobile interaction is greater as a result.

What next for smartphones?

One of the most important trends is ever greater average speeds, with those living in major cities best served. The latest 4G connections can readily deliver speeds in excess of 50 Mbit/s and in some countries, speeds in excess of 100 Mbit/s are available. The first commercial phones able to work at 1 Gigabit/s are likely to be available at the end of 2016. The faster speeds get, the richer the applications that can be supported, and the more viable cloud-based working becomes.

Another fascinating development lies with authentication. Your smartphone is fast becoming your best form of ID. As well as tracking your location, it can log how you move from place to place. Accelerometers and gyroscopes can measure how you walk and authenticate you via your gait; your finger print can be used to authorise payments; the smartphone’s camera can be used for iris recognition. Password entry on a phone is clunky and slow; but fingerprint, voice and recognition could all identify you passively. Added to this, other data you have on the phone, such as your networks of e-mail, instant messaging, text messaging and other forms of communication can all identify who you are.

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