New Report: Nearly a Quarter of Adults are Now Cell-Phone Only

Just shy of 23 percent of American adults now use cell phones only – a new high, although the rate of growth in this population in the last half of 2009 was its slowest in federal data since mid-2007.

The latest estimate from the National Health Interview Survey finds that 22.9 percent of adults were cell-only in the second half of 2009, up from 21.1 percent in the first half of the year. The cell-only population has soared from the low single-digits when first measured in 2003.

The 8.5 percent increase over the first half of 2009 is the slowest six-month growth since the first half of 2007, when the cell-only population grew by 6.8 percent. In the second half of 2006, by contrast, it increased by nearly 23 percent.

Conclusions would be premature: “One data point does not make a trend,” said Stephen J. Blumberg, senior scientist at the National Center for Health Statistics and director of its ongoing measurement of the cell-only population.

Looking at annual data, the prevalence of the cell-only population “had been increasing by 3 points a year. Then by 5 points a year. It may be back down to 3 a year,” said Blumberg. “Is that a leveling off? Optimistically, maybe. But I’m going to wait to get a few more data points.”

Regardless of the rate, he noted in an interview, the NHIS again found an increase in cell-only prevalence “in every demographic group we look at.”

The cell-only population is of interest because traditional telephone surveys have called landlines only, excluding cell-only users. Most survey researchers, however, have moved to include the cell-phone population in their samples, as ABC News has done since fall 2008.

As in the past, cell-only use peaks among young adults, renters, people with roommates and lower-income Americans. Behaviorally, cell-only adults are more likely to binge drink, to smoke and to say they’re in excellent or very good health – the latter likely a function of their age.

The NHIS also estimates cell-only households, rather than adults, putting this figure at 24.5 percent, again with the slowest six-month growth rate since mid-2007. But another measure increased at a much sharper rate – the number of children living in households without landlines, now 25.9 percent. Blumberg said this jumped particularly among lower-income families living in rented homes, and was accompanied by a more general increase in the number of children living in rented homes – possibly an effect of the country’s economic downturn.

The NHIS is a large-scale federal survey conducted via in-person interviews, including 21,375 households and 40,619 adults in its July-December 2009 data. Its phone usage report also includes an estimate of the number of adults who have no telephone service at all – 1.7 percent, and stable.

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