Six in ten Americans go online wirelessly using a laptop or cell phone

African-Americans and 18-29 year olds lead the way in the use of cell phone data applications, but older adults are gaining ground

WASHINGTON, DC – A May 2010 survey by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project finds that six in ten American adults now go online wirelessly using either a mobile phone or a laptop with a wireless internet connection. Americans are also taking advantage of a much wider range of cell phone data applications than at a similar point in 2009.

Cell phone and wireless laptop internet use have each grown more prevalent over the last year. Nearly half of all adults (47%) go online with a laptop using a Wi-Fi connection or mobile broadband card (up from the 39% who did so as of April 2009) while 40% of adults use the internet, email or instant messaging on a mobile phone (up from the 32% of Americans who did this in 2009). This means that 59% of adults now access the internet wirelessly using a laptop or cell phone—that is, they answered “yes” to at least one of these wireless access pathways. That adds up to an increase from the 51% who used a laptop or cell phone wirelessly in April 2009.

The report also finds that the use of non-voice data applications on cell phones has grown dramatically over the last year. Compared with a similar point in 2009, cell phone owners are now more likely to use their mobile phones to:

  • Take pictures—76% now do this, up from 66% in April 2009
  • Send or receive text messages—72% vs. 65%
  • Access the internet—38% vs. 25%
  • Play games—34% vs. 27%
  • Send or receive email—34% vs. 25%
  • Record a video—34% vs. 19%
  • Play music—33% vs. 21%
  • Send or receive instant messages—30% vs. 20%

“The growing functionality of mobile phones makes them ever-more powerful devices for on-the-go communications and computing,” said Aaron Smith, Research Specialist and the author of the Pew Internet Project report. “Cell phones have become for many owners an all-purpose chat-text-gaming-photo-sharing media hub that is an essential utility for work and a really fancy toy for fun.”

African-Americans and English-speaking Latinos continue to be among the most active users of the mobile web. Cell phone ownership is higher among African-Americans and Latinos than among whites (87% vs. 80%) and minority cell phone owners take advantage of a much greater range of their phones’ features compared with white mobile phone users. In total, 64% of African-Americans access the internet from a laptop or mobile phone, a seven-point increase from the 57% who did so at a similar point in 2009.

Young adults (those ages 18-29) are also avid users of mobile data applications, but older adults are gaining fast. Compared with 2009, cell phone owners ages 30-49 are significantly more likely to use their mobile device to send text messages, access the internet, take pictures, record videos, use email or instant messaging, and play music.

“The mobile user population is becoming more diverse over time and more people are relying on their cell phones as their primary form of wireless connectivity,” said Smith. “Even as laptops have become more commonplace in recent years, significant numbers of young adults and minority Americans are relying on a cell phone as their on-ramp to the mobile web.”

Among the other key findings from our survey:

  • Many cell owners use their mobile devices to share and consume multimedia content. Half (54%) of mobile phone owners have used their phone to send someone a photo or video, 20% have watched a video on their phone and 15% have posted a photo or video online from their mobile device.
  • More than half of cell phone internet users (55%) go online from their mobile phone on a daily basis.
  • Most wireless laptop users go online wirelessly at home, but six in ten wireless laptop users go online from multiple locations. One in five (20%) do so from home, work and somewhere other than home or work.
  • Laptop computers are now nearly as common as desktop computers—55% of American adults own a laptop computer, just below the 62% who own a desktop machine. In the past year, laptop ownership among African-Americans has risen dramatically (51% of African-American adults now own a laptop computer).

These findings come from a nationwide phone survey of 2,252 American adults (including 744 interviewed on cell phones) conducted between April 29 and May 30, 2010. The margin of error is two percentage points for the total sample and three percentage points among cell phone owners.

About the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project

The Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project is one of seven projects that make up the Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan, nonprofit “fact tank” that provides information on the issues, attitudes and trends shaping America and the world. The Project produces reports exploring the impact of the internet on families, communities, work and home, daily life, education, health care, and civic and political life. The Project aims to be an authoritative source on the evolution of the internet through surveys that examine how Americans use the internet and how their activities affect their lives.

Media Contact: Aaron Smith