The ways in which teens and their parents use the cell phone are influenced by a variety of factors. One major influence has to do with the economics of the cell phone – who pays for the costs associated with the cell phone and its use and what are the limitations on the service plan for the phone? Does the user have unlimited minutes to talk or the ability to share minutes? Does he or she have an unlimited or pay-as-you-go text messaging plan? And regardless of who pays, what type of plan does the teen have? A shared family plan, an individual plan with a contract, or a contract-less pre-paid phone? Each of these variations can influence how teens and adults use their mobile phones.
Plan types: Most teens have family plans paid by parents.
Cell phone owners have usage plans for their phones that can be divided broadly into three types. First is a plan that has an ongoing contract to cover a single phone and requires a monthly fee each month until the terms of the contract have been met (often one or two years). A second type of plan is also an ongoing contract, but one that covers multiple people and multiple phones. This is often called a family plan. In these types of plans, members covered under the same contract often have a certain number of voice minutes and text messages that they share. A third type of plan is a pre-paid plan. These plans usually cover one phone. They do not require a long-term contract. Some have a monthly flat fee for the service and others allow the user to add minutes and messages to an account as needed, with the minutes and/or texts debiting as they are used.
Most teen cell phone users (69%) have a phone that is part of a contract covering all of their family’s cell phones. About one in five teen cell phone users (18%) are part of a prepaid or pay-as-you-go plan, and just one in ten (10%) have their own individual contract.
The type of cell phone plan a teen has is significantly related to household income. Teens from lower income households are more likely to use prepaid plans or to have their own contract, while teen cell phone users in households with incomes of $50,000 or greater are most likely to be part of a family plan.
Voice Minutes: the most common combination is a family plan with limited voice minutes.
Nearly all cell phone users have voice minutes of some kind on their phone, but how many they have and how they acquire them varies from plan to plan. Some users have an unlimited number of minutes for talking, usually paid for with a flat fee per month. Other users have a set number of minutes that they have available to them per month, as a part of a monthly contract or fee. Others share minutes with other cell phone users, generally through a family plan. And some users purchase minutes on an as-needed basis, and so may have different amounts of minutes available at different times, based on available funds.
Voice minutes and type of plan (pre-paid, family or separate contract) are closely related. Most teens on a prepaid plan say they have a set amount of money to buy minutes, while most on the family plan say they have a set number of minutes they can use each month. For those teens with their own contract, it is most common to have an unlimited number of minutes each month.
As the above table shows, household income is also a key determinant of the type and amount of voice calling minutes a teen has. Higher income teens (those living in households with incomes of at least $50,000) are more likely than teens in lower income households to say they have a set number of minutes they can use each month. The lowest income teen cell phone users (those from households with incomes below $30,000 annually) are four times as likely as other teens to say they have a set amount of money with which to buy minutes each month.
How minutes are managed within a cell plan varies by race and ethnicity. Almost half of all white teen cell phone users (47%) say they have a set number of minutes they can use each month, compared with just 15% of black teen cell phone users. Black teens, in contrast, are more likely than white teens to say they have a set amount of money to spend each month to buy minutes – this is true for one in five black teen cell phone users overall (20%), and just under half (42%) of black teen cell phone users in households with incomes below $30,000. Still, most black teen cell phone users (44%) say they have an unlimited number of minutes to use each month.
Voice minutes also vary by age, with older teens (ages 14-17) more likely than younger teens (ages 12-13) to have a set number of minutes they can spend each month (51% vs. 40%). Young girls are the most likely to have unlimited voice minutes on their cell phones: 57% of 12-13 year-old girls have unlimited voice minutes. (All of the above figures are based only on teens who know how many voice minutes they have – 13% of teens are not sure how their plan works and could not answer the voice minutes question.)
When one combines type of plan with voice minutes, the most common combination is a family plan with limited voice minutes – one in three teen cell phone users (34%) are on this type of plan. One in four teen cell phone users (25%) are on a family plan with unlimited minutes. A younger high school boy explains his family’s plan:
- Minutes are more expensive than the texting, so I have unlimited texting for 10 dollars, but the minutes are like 40, so we just share those. She kept warning me before, um, she got me T-Mobile and if I went over the minutes she’d take my phone, but I never went over my minutes.
Texting plans: The bulk of teens have unlimited text messaging plans.
The economics of texting have radically shifted in recent years and that has likely contributed to the increased popularity of texting among teens. Over the past few years, unlimited texting plans have become the norm among teen text users. Three in four teen cell phone users (75%) have unlimited texting plans. Just 13% of teen cell phone users pay per message. This high rate of unlimited texting holds fairly steady across different income categories and racial/ethnic groups. Only among white teens is there a strong correlation between household income and having unlimited texting. Just 59% of white teen cell phone users in households with incomes below $30,000 have an unlimited text plan, compared with 79% of all other white teen cell phone users. As one would expect, texting availability varies by plan type. Teens on family (81%) and individual (78%) plans are significantly more likely to have unlimited texting than those with prepaid plans (54%). The percentage of teen cell phone users with unlimited texting rises steadily with age, and more girls than boys report having plans with this feature. The group most likely to have unlimited texting is 14-17 year-old girls, 86% of whom have this feature in their plans.
In this context it is worth noting that the cost for sending and receiving text messages without a subscription can range between 15 to 30 cents per message. On the other hand, unlimited subscriptions are extremely common. Thus, if teen A has an unlimited texting subscription and communicates with teen B who does not, texting would represent a significant burden given that U.S. cell phone owners pay to both send and receive text messages. This situation would encourage teen B to get a bundled or unlimited texting subscription. This type of calculation would ripple thorough groups of teens who, as we will see below, have started to use texting for many different purposes. Those who do not sign up for specific subscriptions face the possibility of having to pay dearly for the use of texting by their friends with unlimited plans.
Who pays for teens’ cell phones?
Twenty-nine percent of teen cell phone users pay for at least some of the costs of their cell phones; that figure rises to 63% among black and Hispanic teens in households with incomes below $30,000.
Seventeen seems to be a critical age in terms of cell phone responsibility; at that age the percentage of cell phone users who are responsible for at least part of their cell phone bills jumps to 40%. One in five 17 year-olds (20%) pay their entire bill themselves. For those teens who do not pay entirely for their own cell phone bills, 94% say it is their parents who pick up the bill.
Overall, over half of all teen cell phone users are on family plans that someone else (almost always a parent) pays entirely—this figure jumps to two-thirds among teens living in households with incomes of $50,000 or more. Other popular subscription types are those family plans for which the teen pays some of the costs and someone else pays the remainder. Prepaid or pay-as-you-go plans for which someone else pays are also common.
Among teens living in households with incomes below $30,000, only 31% are on a family plan that someone else pays for. In this group, 15% have prepaid plans that someone else pays for, and 12% have prepaid plans that they pay for entirely themselves. Black teens living in low income households are the most likely to have prepaid plans that they pay for themselves.