Smartphone ownership at all-time high, but overuse leads to friction

17 October 2016 5 min. read

Smartphone penetration has hit 81% across the UK, a new study reveals. Uptake is slowing however, as market saturation for the devices approaches. While the devices are said to have a net benefit to their users, their overuse in work and social situations can generate considerable intrusiveness, with more than a third of millennials finding themselves in disagreement with their partners about the use of smartphones.

In a new report from Deloitte, titled ‘There’s no place like phone: Consumer usage patterns in the era of peak smartphone’, the accounting and consulting firm explores the uptake and usage of smartphones and other devices across the globe. To develop its snapshot, the professional services firm surveyed 53,000 respondents across 31 countries and five continents. The UK respondents to the survey numbered 4,000 and span demographics such as age, gender, region, working and socio-economic status.

UK smartphone penetration since 2012

The analysis finds that smartphone penetration in the UK has continued apace. In 2012 around half of the UK population owned a smartphone, two years later the total had jumped to 70% of the population. Today penetration is up 7% on the year previous, coming in at 81% of the UK population now owning a smartphone. Different age groups highlight different levels of penetration however, with the 91% of 18–44 year olds owning a smartphone.

Switching to smartphone

While smartphone penetration has reached new heights in 2016, the growth of uptake has slowed to 7% over the previous year, from 19% in the year to 2013. The research too sought to identify in how far those that continue to use the previous iteration of mobile phone, the feature phone, are planning to switch to a smartphone in the coming 12 months. The survey found that of the 12% of UK consumers that have such a feature phone only, around 21% are planning to switch. 

While growth in new adopters is slowing markedly as saturation approaches, many respondents remain keen to upgrade their phones to newer models. Around 10 million new units are expected to be sold in the UK over the coming year, although growth in the replacement market is – according to the Deloitte’s projection – likely to slow as replacement rates drop. The drop in substitution is in part the result of the high quality of the current product, which, for the most part, meets consumer needs in everything from power to weight and size.

Device penetration

The research also found that smartphones have, in terms of ownership, become the most dominant consumer electronic device on the market today. Only laptops come close, at 76% of respondents owning or having access to such a device. Tablets, which saw colossal growth in recent years, have a penetration of around 63%, while the desktop computer features in the lives of around 48% of respondents. eReaders have relatively low penetration at 29%, while fitness bands are accessible to around 9% of respondents. Smart watches have not taken off, with 4% of respondents owning such a device, while VR headsets – the latest offering expected to develop into a hype – currently has an uptake of 3%.

Usage of smartphones while doing other activities

Risky smartphone behaviour

While smartphones can create additional opportunities, reduce inefficiencies and connect people in new ways, they also come with often unconsidered normative risks. The device can become intrusive if used in some social settings, or in other cases, downright dangerous. 

As part of the research the Big Four firm looked into the level of usage in intrusive situations. Users, the authors found, tend to use devices the most often, and with the least intrusion, in public transport, while shopping and while watching TV / a movie. Smartphones are frequently used in a work setting, yet it coincides with a relatively high intrusiveness impact. Meeting friends for a night out and walking are also areas in which smartphones tend to be highly utilised while generating considerable intrusion. 

The times that usage has the highest intrusion impact are in business meetings, whilst crossing the road or whilst driving, these, situations are – luckily – also relatively low in the intensity of usage scale.

Percentage of people with partner disagreements around smartphones

Smartphone ‘overuse’ or in delicate/dangerous situations has, according to the survey, an impact on relationships. The 25-34 years of age group was found to have the highest level of disagreements with their respective partners about mobile phone usage, at 38% of respondents, followed by the 18-24 group and the 35-44 group, at 33% apiece. The older age groups are less likely to engage in use behaviour that grates on the nerves of their partners.