Mobiles and children

Enrique Dans. Professor. IE Business School

7 April 2010

If you still think the main purpose of your mobile phone is voice transmission, and you can’t understand why younger users seem permanently obsessed with their mobile screens, then you are missing out on something.

For those of us who are at a certain age, it is a challenge for the memory to put some perspective on the technological advances we see as completely normal and as an intrinsic part of our everyday life today. One of the best examples is the mobile telephone, a device that has found its way into thousands of millions of pockets of people all over the world who never leave home without it.

One recent study in the United States shows that the average age at which children get their first mobile telephone has now fallen to 12 years. Depending on the purchasing power of these children´s families, the penetration levels in the upper-middle-class segment are higher than 87%. If we look back in time, many of us would find it hard to remember that when we were 12 years old, not only did we not have a mobile telephone, but there was also no possibility of us having one. Not only that, the vision of anyone speaking apparently on their own in a car or while walking down the street would have made us immediately think that they had some kind of mental problem. The telephone was a device connected to the wall by a cable, with two different parts joined together by a coiled cable. It had a dial (show one to today´s children... they take knowing what to do with "that" as some kind of challenge) the use of which was also strictly limited as far as we were concerned.

The increase in the penetration of the mobile telephone in increasingly younger segments of the population has fascinated mobile operators. If we assume an average life expectancy of 78 years and consider that the average life of a mobile phone is 16 months, each of these young people will have owned approximately 50 devices, each with their corresponding monthly bill for the services consumed. If we take into account the fact that mobile-telephone owners are becoming increasingly younger and that the rate of technological progress is increasing, the figures are enough to make anyone dizzy.

But the concept is changing even more: this far down the line, the term we increasingly use to refer to these devices is "mobile", on its own. No longer "mobile phone", simply "mobile". The range of terminals that is growing the most is that of the so-called "smartphones", devices in which the capacity for voice communication is simply one of their many functions. Every day, we use our mobiles for more things, for a wide variety of uses that range from consulting a map via GPS to reading e-mail, exchanging text messages or commenting our activities on a social network.

For younger users, this transition is even more spectacular: I could take my 15-year-old daughter´s voice options away from her and she might not even realise. But if I were to take away her data options, they would hear her shouting in the most far-flung corners of the world. Her telephone spends much more of its time in her hands than next to her ear. Whereas people of a certain age still use the mobile to speak on the phone as a nostalgic evocation of when a conversation, a nice dinner or a film were not interrupted by the unbearable variety of ringtones on the phones of those there with you, young people have absolutely no nostalgia for something they never saw (imagining a world without mobiles is tantamount to the time when human beings lived in caves and ate raw meat) and they use their mobiles more and more each day as what they are: miniature computers with a capacity for processing data that is much greater than their capacity for being used as devices for transmitting voice communications.

Take your mobile out of your pocket and look at it carefully. If you still see it as a device for voice transmissions, if you are not capable of imagining the strange rites that keep the eyes of users younger than yourself glued to the screen and how that might affect your business, be careful: you are missing something.

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