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Smartphones Are Lifelines for More Poor Americans, Study Says

Because of the growing digital divide, many poorer Americans are dependent on their smartphones for access to the Internet, a new study shows.

Because of the growing digital divide, many poorer Americans are dependent on their smartphones for access to the Internet, a new study shows. Sean Gallup / Getty Images

Smartphone dependency is up sharply nationwide, particularly among lower-income households and those with fewer years of education, according to a new report by the Pew Research Center.

Around 64 percent of American adults own smartphones, up 29 percent in just four years, the research released Wednesday said. Among Americans who have smartphones, 10 percent said they don't have broadband access at home, and 15 percent said they have limited online options beyond their coveted mobile devices.

Not all Americans have access to high speed broadband connections at home, a disparity sometimes referred to as the growing digital divide. The new Pew research illustrates what many low-income households are experiencing—that smartphones are playing an increasingly outsized role in their lives. Cellphones serve as digital lifelines for everything from health-care information to job hunts.

"The connections to online resources that smartphones facilitate are often most tenuous for those users who rely on those connections the most."

"The connections to online resources that smartphones facilitate are often most tenuous for those users who rely on those connections the most," said Aaron Smith, a senior researcher at Pew Research Center.

Of the survey's respondents, 13 percent with a reported annual household income of less than $30,000 said they are "heavily" dependent on their smartphone. "You can think of them as the working poor or the financially vulnerable or unstable," he said.

Smith added he was surprised by the number of consumers who sought jobs and other services through their smartphones.

The users "skew young and ethnically diverse," Smith said. They also have lower rates of health insurance, are more likely to say they rent or live with friend or family instead of owning a home and are somewhat financially unstable, he said. "I think you can see that instability coming through challenges of smartphone ownership," he said.

As a comparison, just 1 percent of households earning more than $75,000 annually rely on smartphones for online access.

The research, produced with John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, was based on 3,181 telephone interviews in October.

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Heavy users

It's well known consumers check their cellphones dozens of times in a single day. But the study found three groups in particular are heavy smartphone users: those with low incomes and education levels, nonwhites and young adults across the board.

Among nonwhites, 12 percent of African-Americans and 13 percent of Latinos are smartphone-reliant, compared with 4 percent of whites, according to the report.

The research also found 15 percent of Americans, ages 18 to 29, rely heavily on smartphones for online access.

"It's the portability, the accessibility; that's why our dependency has grown exponentially and it's nudged out desktops and laptops," said James Roberts, a marketing professor at Baylor University, who researches cellphone patterns among college students.

And perhaps making the digital divide more stressful for some, smartphone owners who are particularly reliant on their mobile Internet connections reported reaching their data plan limits much more quickly than those who reported a lesser reliance on their mobile devices.

The research also found more Americans are using smartphones for a wider range of activities and information, including online banking, accessing real estate listings, education classes and submission of job applications.

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