National Edition

Gotta have: Are smartphones a need or just a want?

Published: Wednesday, Oct. 16 2013 6:00 a.m. MDT

Smartphones are on a trajectory to becoming a need instead of just a want as more Americans are integrating the devices into every aspect of their lives.

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NEWTON, Mass. — Lisa Rinkus may be fighting a losing battle. Her 14-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, wants an iPhone.

"She was asking every day, 'When can I have an iPhone,’ ” says Rinkus, owner of a public relations firm in the Boston area. "My husband was about to cave and I was horrified."

Everybody Rinkus knows, she says, has given their kids a smartphone.

"But I know a lot of parents who say they wish they never caved in," she says.

The tide seems to be going toward universal adoption. Resistance seems futile. The Pew Research Center's Internet and American Life Project reported in May that, for the first time, a majority of adult Americans (56 percent) owned smartphones. Of young people ages 18 to 29, 77 percent of those who make less than $30,000 a year still own a smartphone.

Pew also found recently that 63 percent of adult cell owners now use their phones to go online — twice the percentage of 2009.

And among teenagers, almost 78 percent of them own a phone, with almost half of that group owning a smartphone, according to Pew.

But even with the high percentages, Rinkus and others are confronting the question of whether smartphones are wants or needs.

Clash of worlds

Susan Kuhn, a "technology futurist and digital strategist" in Arlington, Va., says fear is behind much of the opposition to smartphones and allowing kids to have them.

"Information technology is evolving faster than anything in human history," Kuhn says. "The key is to not just look at the device, but the role it is playing."

That role includes the different things a child could do with it — such as creating videos, expanding learning, creating websites and content on social networks, or being connected to resources at school.

"Smartphones are going to be very important in the future," she says. Parents should want their children to master the tool and use it well. Kids are going to grow up in a world of instant communication and ubiquity of information, she says.

"We do right by our children when we help them to grow up able to live in the world that is coming for them, the world of the future — not the world that we are comfortable, the world of what we grew up in."

Already connected?

Rinkus, however, thinks kids are connected. "If kids have access to computers, iPods, library computers and school computers," she says, "then why the heck do they need it in their pocket while they are waiting for the bus?"

But smartphones can be used for far more than killing a few idle moments while waiting for a bus. A recent study by Jumio, an online verification and mobile payments company based in Palo Alto, Calif., found that people are using their smartphones just about everywhere and during everything.

People admit using them in movie theaters (35 percent of smartphone owners), during a dinner date (33 percent), at a child's or school function (32 percent), in a place of worship (19 percent), while in the shower (19 percent) and even during, um, intimate times (9 percent). Despite laws and other attempts to stigmatize it, 55 percent admit to using smartphones while driving.

James A. Roberts, a professor of marketing at Baylor University, thinks smartphone use like this is a sign of addiction.

Tipping into addiction

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