Teenage Mobile Behaviours  - Part 1

Part one of a three part series exploring how teenagers are really using mobile based on interviews with 'real' teens.

Written by Craig Watson (@_CraigWatson)
Co-Founder and COO at Soundwave (

In the Autumn of 2014, my colleague Roisin McCormack and I decided to spend three months vicariously reverting back to this glorious window between childhood and adulthood to find out what behaviours were driving teenage mobile usage.

Although we had spent a significant amount of time doing third party research using some great resources like Ofcom’s Children and Parents: Media Use and Attitude Report and Voxburner’s The Youth 100 — The UK’s Top Brand According to 18–24 Year Olds, we felt like there were some gaps in our knowledge that could only be filled in by speaking with ‘actual’ teenagers. So what did this involve?

We basically got to spend a ton of time hanging out at college campuses, eating dodgy cafeteria food and generally living the student dream. Apart from just kicking it with the cool kids, we wanted to find out what underlying psychology and social cues had led to certain mobile apps dominating. We also wanted to explore the role that modern music services played in the daily lives of teenagers.

So armed with nothing more than a burning curiosity and some rudimentary qualitative research experience and guidance (thanks to Matthew HawnAlan Cooper and Danah Boyd!), we set a goal to speak to a few hundred teenagers over a couple of months to see if we could uncover any patterns around mobile usage. The results were fascinating.

By way of background, I’m a co-founder of Soundwave, a social music mobile app, that allows people to chat and share music with their friends. A large number of our users are teenagers (or digital natives) who have grown up in a connected and on-demand mobile world. The goal was therefore to find out what problems these digital natives were having with the current mobile and music offerings. By understanding these pain points, we’d therefore have a better idea about how the future of consumption would evolve. 

The topic of behavioural psychology and teenage mobile consumption seems to be especially relevant these days with a number of blog posts and online articles on this subject having already gone viral. The most famous of these was authored by Andrew Watts and the post itself entitled ‘A Teenager’s View on Social Media (written by an actual teen)’ which has over 500k views at the time of writing.

Since then, Andrew has written some informative follow up posts. Danah Boyd, the seminal literary figure on this topic, then wrote her on own post on medium about the limitations of Andrew’s observations and how it was important to remember that these findings represented only a small subset of one particular demographic in the US (primarily rich, white, upper class).

With that caveat in mind, I thought it would be a good idea to describe the methodology used in our research (and the scope of the study). We chose a sample size of about 200 teenagers (both boys and girls aged between 13 and 19) who were either attending school or university.

Because we’re based in Dublin, Ireland all our interviewees came from the local area and the interviews (which were really just informal chats) were conducted either in our office or on site in the schools and universities lasting between thirty minutes to ninety minutes, loosely following a script which covered:-

  1. General Mobile Phone Usage Patterns;
  2. Overall App Usage Patterns;
  3. Daily Music Usage Patterns; and
  4. Social App Usage Patterns.

As you can probably imagine, hundreds of hours of interviews resulted in thousands of pages of notes and observations. For the purposes of publishing these results in bite sized digestible chunks, we’ve decided to split these into three separate parts which loosely follow the script we used when interviewing.

Part 1 focuses on general mobile phone and app usage patterns. We then provide some commentary about our findings and offer some useful tips to other app developers about they can implement these results into their products. Part 2 will cover Daily Music Usage Patterns and and Part 3 is going to tackle Social App Usage Patterns in general with an overall conclusion. With all that said and done, let’s dive into our findings!

General Mobile Phone Usage Patterns 

Our teenagers typically used the same phone for around 2 years and these phones are usually recycled hand-me-down phones from their parents. As such they tend to be one or two generations behind the latest models available in the market (eg iPhone 4’s, 5’s and 5G’s while their parents would have an iPhone 6 or 6 Plus). It probably goes without saying but the older they are (or the more disposable income their parents have), the more likely they are to have newer models. Birthday and Christmas presents are the main occasions when teens get their new phones.

  • Of those interviewed the majority had an iPhone (65% iOS vs 35% on Android or a forked equivalent). The usual suspects were all present on Android (Samsung, HTC) and quite a few Chinese models to much to our surprise (Huwaei and Xiaomi).
  • There is no clear network winner or carrier (in Ireland these are split between Three, O2, Vodafone, Tesco and 48 Hours). It was interesting to see that data plans were evenly split between all-you-can-eat data and paid. As can be seen below, this has a huge impact on how teens use their phones and apps and all-you-can-eat plans were the envy of those who still relied on WiFi to consume content everyday.
  • Each morning, there was a clear pattern of checking in to apps within 15 minutes of waking up, referred to as the ‘loop’ where they scan through new messages and tagged posts to ‘get up to speed’ with any updates since they last checked their phone going to bed. This is very much a daily habit and most of our teens admitted to being addicted to doing the ‘loop’ before getting out of bed.
  • They would next use their phones during their trip to school/university ­and this is usually to listen to music (especially if WiFi is available on the commute for those without free data plans). This commute fits very much into the deadtime category and as can be seen in Part 2, music is the go to time killer when our teens were by themselves and bored.
  • Our teens were less prone to use their mobile phones in school unless they have a free class. This seems to primarily for fear of the phone being confiscated but also because of an apparent willingness to learn — that surprised us a little as we had presumed that smartphones were still the enemies of teachers in schools.
  • The heaviest usage is by far in the evenings after school where most interviewees admitted to spending more time on their phones than watching TV (even when watching TV). The second screen is still the first screen for teenagers. The final push of smartphone usage tyically then takes place just before going to sleep (and usually in bed) where they will close off from their days social media and set their alarm.
  • As expected, messaging apps have completely taken over and they rarely use SMS with friends unless they have no WiFi or if ‘it’s an emergency!’. They do text their parents out of necessity more than anything. Otherwise, this is an alien form of communication that costs money — iMessages or BBM’s being the only exceptions. In short, they use their phone primarily for messaging and the camera. It’s the digital equivalent of their eyes, ears and mouth rolled into one.
  • Most have an email (Gmail or Hotmail account) but they typically don’t use it until they go to university. A few had homework assignments that were sent out by email but they viewed their inbox as a ‘wasteland of spam’ (so much so that signing friends up for Poem of the Day using their email account was a fairly common prank!). Parental control over mail is an interesting issue that came up and this seems to be a legacy issue from when the email accounts were set up in the first place. As can be seen below, this is probably why the phone (and a teens mobile phone number) is so sacred. There are no legacy or parental restrictions/privacy breaches.
  • They’re obsessed with storage and data and delete apps to create space (which can be understood by reference to the importance of latency in general). If they make an action, they expect an instant reaction.
  • They are hypersensitive to speed ­ and don’t have the attention span to wait for any type of loading/buffering. Kevin Bacon’s terrible buffer face ad for EE is unfortunately on the money.

Takeaways For Marketers:

  • Think about tying into usage behaviours (the ‘loop’ in the morning) ­- can you become part of that loop? The heaviest usage is when commuting, studying, watching TV in the evenings or before going to sleep — not in school or college.
  • Email is not used by teens, only for school or university work. ­ Don’t waste time on retention or activation communications that are focused on email. They won’t read it and your witty marketing will be viewed with about as much respect as the Poem of the Day!
  • Apps need to be fast (speed trumps everything) and as small as possible. Sweat over the size and don’t become a target for a weekly app deleting audit (see below in Overall App Usage Behaviours).
  • In this respect, keep data limitations in mind at all times. Could the video you are trying to send be smaller? Could you aim for a zero-rated data partnership with a carrier? Could you provide for caching any content to be enjoyed offline? If you can’t avoid bigger file sizes, should you focus push notifications at times when teens are most likely to have WiFi (eg at home in the evenings).
  • Don’t assume that just because teens are referred to as ‘Digital Natives’, they are all digital early adopters. Fragmentation amongst devices and OS’ is still an issue, especially in light of the fact that their first few smartphones are hand-me-downs from parents.

Overall App Usage Patterns


 • Our teens rarely pay for apps (and only if specialised and highly validated through their friends)- it goes against their upbringing of enjoying free content.
• On average, they have between 10–20 apps per device (which is testament to how rigorous they are about storage and the file size of apps in general).
• The most convenient way to login to an app is through Facebook but they are only happy to do this if they trust the app and they know that it won’t automatically post anything to their wall (see below, this is a huge anxiety point for teenagers).
• The top apps amongst our sample were #1 FB Messenger #2 Whatsapp for boys, #2 Instagram for girls. Snapchat came in at #3.
• They are very against logging in with phone numbers due primarily to privacy reasons. They see their phone number as a direct line (which is out of reach of their parents). As such, teens are concerned about their phone number being ‘out there’ in the ether and the trade-off for a quick log-in is usually not worth it. For example, most had not included their phone number in Snapchat (they had joined >2 years ago when this was not a prerequisite) and they preferred anonymity of using a username. Also, if given the choice between logging in with Facebook and using their phone number, they will pick Facebook every time. Finally, they also have strong concerns around location monitoring (GPS notifications etc).
• There is no one size fits all when it comes to communications apps. Facebook Messenger is used for close friends through the social graph. Whatsapp is used for contacts through phone graph (eg it might be used to organise class trips or study groups). Snapchat seems to be a mix of both.
• There was a definite trend in moving from private to public as they become more confident in an app. They cited Instagram and Twitter as examples of platforms that accommodated this desire.
• A word of mouth recommendation from a friend is by far the strongest driver to download an app. They hate external invites from apps (they don’t use email or SMS messages and the Facebook wall is seen as link bait ­- all of these distribution channels appear spammy). Links from unknown sources are also generally seen as untrustworthy.
• They will only pay attention to the ratings of apps when they are on the fence about a product (eg don’t know enough about it or don’t trust or). Having zero ratings is dangerous and would be a red flag. They also doubt apps with less than a 3 star rating.
• ‘Top Free’ is the main category where they look for apps if not through a referral. They don’t usually pay any attention to featured or Editor’s Choice apps which they referred to as ‘faddy’.
• If they are looking for specific apps (eg a calculator app) they will search for it in the store. Overall, they don’t come across a lot of apps serendipitously and rely on validated products through their friends.
• Top reasons for deleting an app would be #1 memory #2 if the app does not do what they expected from the app store description #3 latency issues #4 if not used and #5 annoying ads.
• A weekly/bi-­weekly audit of the apps on their phones was common ­to save space — usually the apps with the least usage got the chop first.
• Email is often used instead of Facebook to login to apps they don’t yet trust (as we now know, their email account is basically just a graveyard of expired links and spam). It was interesting to note that most didn’t really know or care what Google Plus is even though they have gmail accounts ­. G+ exemplifies the problems with the older social constructs of Web 2.0 (this is anecdotally backed up in Andrew Watts’ post).


  • If avoidable don’t ever charge for an app,­ the majority of teens won’t pay.
  • There is a general acceptance that the lack of friction for a Facebook sign-in trumps privacy concerns for on-boarding. Facebook sign-in also gives them comfort that the app is reliable (as it’s such a well known brand in itself). Email sign-in is used as a way to get through on-boarding without committing to anything.
  • The main downside of Facebook sign-­in is that there are huge numbers of legacy ‘friends’ who are of no relevance any more (especially amongst university students who have moved away from their high school friends) so leveraging OpenGraph could actually be unproductive if it causes anxiety with legacy issues.
  • Logging in with phone numbers is tricky too — they are very reluctant to give out their phone numbers. They think phone number is their most personal asset ­ so app developers need to really dial into specific reasons (and incentives) for using the phone graph to get them to accept this method.
  • When thinking about social it’s important to remember that there is no one single social graph any more. Facebook (or ‘Old’ Facebook as it was often referred to in Part 3 of this series) is the widest graph but there are legacy issues with that as noted. Whatsapp is for general friends and organisation/groups outside of close friends (eg sports teams etc). Facebook Messenger and Snapchat is used for their closest circle of friends.
  • There is a trend of moving from private profiles to public when they get used to a platform. App developers could mirror this flow for first time users and give them comfort that nothing being shown until they want it to be shown.
  • Don’t waste time with external spammy app invites. If your app is good enough, it will spread by word of mouth.
  • In Part 2 of this series, we’ll explain how our teens consumed music on a daily basis. Part 3 will then cover social app usage behaviours and our overall conclusions.

Thanks for reading- if you liked this post, please recommend it ☺. If you’d like to hear more about this, I’m going to be on a panel at the Voxburner Youth Marketing Strategy event in London on 10–11 March and would love to see you there.


This article was first posted here.


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