Does (Screen) Size Matter? News Engagement on Computers, Tablets, and Smartphones
Posted: 18 Mar 2015 Last revised: 15 Jun 2017
Date Written: March 17, 2015
Proliferation of the Internet, mobile devices, and social media is changing the way ordinary people choose, access, and consume information. Theories about the political consequences abound; namely, the impact of media fragmentation and content choices on political knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors. Work on the impact of mobile communication technology is newer, and much of the work is characterized by the tendency to focus on the positive benefits it affords. While the positive benefits are many, such focus may obscure important trends in mobile use that reveal important differences across the types of connectivity available to various individuals and groups. For example, many Americans are cell-only Internet users. A common interpretation of this might be that mobile phones are enabling Internet connectivity for a large portion of the U.S. population who might not otherwise have access. While that may be true, cell-only use means that this segment of the population does not access the Internet regularly on a computer, which is consequential because screen size and speed of connection are correlated with content engagement. What’s more is that there are important differences in computer and mobile device Internet usage across demographic groups. For example, on average Latino audiences in the 35-49 age brackets spend 27 hours and 12 minutes per month using the Internet on a computer and 53 hours and 54 minutes using the Internet on their mobile devices. That gap is much smaller when looking at the total U.S. population; the former uses the Internet on computers much more and on mobile devices much less (Nielsen, 2015). Generally speaking, theoretical arguments about the anticipated effects of the changing media landscape do not properly account for differences in habitual media used driven by tiers and types of content accessibility. Specifically, these arguments fail to recognize and account for key differences in access and media use between groups that may have consequences for theories about anticipated effects from the current media environment. These nuances also highlight the need for the literature to do a better job of linking the academic research with telecommunication policy implications. Our evidence is timely in that it should add to the discussion regarding regulation of the Internet by highlighting some of the political information consequences of access and connection differences across individuals and groups. We ask: what are the consequences of device type and connection speed on political information seeking, news engagement, and political learning?
The crux of our primary theoretical argument and contribution rests our major claim that we cannot assume that the communication and engagement opportunities afforded through internet access on mobile devices are the same as those afforded through computers and laptops with high speed connections. We argue that the kinds of content seeking and content exposure on the latter are not the same as the former, and using a novel experimental design we present evidence that these media behaviors are in fact quite different across these distribution mechanisms. News engagement is more tenuous and sporadic on mobile devices.
Keywords: media effects, internet access, mobile devices, connection speed, news engagement
JEL Classification: J18
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation