Durability: young people use their phones longer

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 (Image: Pixabay CC0)
(Image: Pixabay CC0)

Young Swiss use their smartphones for almost three years before replacing them. That’s almost a year longer than in 2016, according to the latest JAMESfocus report from ZHAW and Swisscom. While technical features and price remain central for young people when buying a cell phone, sustainability criteria are also gaining in importance.

The theme of sustainability is becoming increasingly important, even among young people in Switzerland. In recent years, movements such as the Climate Strike and Fridays for Future have highlighted climate and environmental issues, often initiated by young people. However, sustainability is not a priority for young people when they use their smartphones. This is shown by the latest JAMESfocus report from the ZHAW Media Psychology Group and Swisscom. ZHAW researchers have analyzed how sustainability considerations influence the cell phone behavior of 12-19 year-olds in Switzerland. They compared the data with those from the 2016 survey.

Technical features take center stage

Technical features such as camera quality or storage capacity (2022: 73%) and price (2022: 67%) are still among the most important characteristics of a smartphone for young people. Whereas in 2016, design was also of paramount importance for almost half of them, relevance here has declined (2022: 26 percent). The brand of the device also seems less important to young people (2016: 54%; 2022: 45%). Battery life, a sustainability criterion, comes in fourth place. Whereas in 2016, this was only important for 13% of those surveyed, in 2022, 41% already consider it to be one of the three most important features. "The high importance attached to technical features shows that the smartphone is an important daily companion for young people, assisting them in a wide variety of areas and serving as a tool," explains Céline Külling-Knecht, researcher at ZHAW. Device manufacturers’ marketing strategies generally focus on the technical or optical features of the devices, and pay little attention to sustainability aspects. "It’s possible that young people partly lack knowledge about the sustainable aspects of technical devices," explains Gregor Waller, media psychologist at ZHAW. Battery life or repairability are less easy to assess than financial or technical features. Parents play an important role as role models for consumer decisions. But even with them, sustainability aspects rarely come to the fore.

Smartphone lifespan increases

79% of young people own a smartphone they bought new, while almost a fifth own a second-hand device. By way of comparison: among adults, less than one in ten cell phones is a second-hand device, according to another ZHAW study. It also turns out that cell phones are now being used for longer by young people than they were a few years ago. Whereas in 2016, a device was replaced on average after 1.9 years, it would be used for around 2.7 years in 2022. Young people therefore use their cell phones for slightly longer than the adult population, where the average lifespan of a cell phone is around two years.

The lifespan of a cell phone, for example, could be extended by having it repaired, and this is something that young people are doing, at least in part. 42% of young people have already had their smartphone repaired. Among the adult population, only 7% have had their smartphone repaired.

Sustainable action gains in relevance

Overall, the results show that the theme of sustainability is not a priority for young people in the context of smartphone use, but it does have a certain relevance. In particular, extending the lifespan of smartphones is a positive change, as their manufacture consumes many resources. If a device remains in service for longer, this has a positive effect on the environment, but presupposes a change in consumer behavior and at the same time engages the responsibility of device manufacturers. "In order for sustainability criteria to be given greater weight when making a purchase, they should be indicated in a more transparent way, like the price or brand of a device," explains Michael In Albon, in charge of youth protection in the media at Swisscom.

Similarly, young people should be encouraged to develop their consumer skills. To this end, they should be made more aware of the impact of smartphones on the environment. On the supplier side, second-hand purchasing and repair options should be made better known and more accessible.

Buying used rather than new smartphones: the second-hand range of cell phones has grown steadily in recent years, and there are now a number of different suppliers offering a wide choice. Using the keyword "Refurbished Smartphones", you can quickly find different offers with just a quick Internet search. This way, you’re not only doing something for the environment, you’re also saving money.

Handle smartphones with care, and have them repaired in an emergency: a weak battery or faulty screen should not be a reason to replace a device immediately. Both can be replaced by a specialist for a fraction of the cost. To prevent damage such as screen cracks, we also recommend the use of protective films or covers, and careful handling.

Only replace smartphones if you can’t do otherwise: many devices replaced in Switzerland would still be perfectly usable. It is often optional reasons, such as the desire for a newer model or tempting subscription offers that immediately promise a new "free" cell phone, that lead to the new purchase. In such cases, it’s worth pausing for a moment and asking yourself whether it’s really necessary to replace your cell phone after just three years, or whether it’s still not good enough. What’s more, these subscription offers are rarely really more advantageous, as the costs are simply spread over several years.

Taking care of the battery: By paying attention to certain points, you can significantly extend the life of a cell phone battery. To protect the battery, the state of charge should ideally be maintained between 20% and 80%, with 50% being best. Short charging cycles are preferable to permanent overnight recharging. Charging should preferably be carried out at a device temperature of between 15 and 35°C. Generally speaking, the cell phone should be kept in a cool, shady place (no colder than 10°C).

Recycle or donate smartphones instead of storing them at home: old smartphones contain precious and scarce resources. Many of them are left abandoned in a drawer. When a device no longer functions, it must be recycled or returned to the supplier. If a smartphone is still in working order, it can be donated or given as a gift, to keep it in use longer and make someone happy.

JAMES study and JAMESfocus report

Every two years since 2010, the JAMES study conducted by ZHAW Zürcher Hochschule für Angewandte Wissenschaften on behalf of Swisscom has questioned over 1,000 young people aged 12 to 19 in Switzerland’s three main language regions about their media behavior. The JAMESfocus series uses data from the JAMES study and analyses other aspects in depth. Data collection for the present results took place in April and May 2022.

This year, in addition to the present report, reports have been published on social resources and media use, as well as on influencers and positive content on social networks.