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Evan Horowitz

No, really, people are still making phone calls

People using their cellphones in downtown San Francisco.AP Photo/Ben Margot

Our phones have changed a lot in recent years. It wasn’t all that long ago that phones were fastened to walls and the ability to walk and talk was still limited by the length of a cord. Today, more than half of all people in the United States have smartphones. Wherever we are, we can send text messages, share photos, post to Facebook, or even find friends who happen to be walking nearby. We can also make phone calls, but why would we? Given the breadth of other options, it makes sense that people would be spending less time dialing and chatting.

Yet, we’re not. Remarkably, the cellphone revolution hasn’t affected the amount of time we spend making phone calls. Across nearly every age group, from teenagers to retirees, people spend as much time talking on the phone, and sometimes more, than in 2003 (the first year for which we have good data).


Today, the average American spends six minutes talking on the phone each day. In 2003, when camera phones were first introduced, text messaging hadn’t yet taken off, and smartphones like the Blackberry were still specialty devices for business travelers, Americans spent five minutes talking on the phone. In between, the numbers have fluctuated a bit, but not much. Year after year, Americans spent roughly six to seven minutes a day making calls. Despite the explosion of new gadgets and new technologies, telephone calls have remained an essential part of the way we communicate.

How can this be? Shouldn’t the availability of text messages, e-mail, Facebook, and Snapchat have made phone calls largely unnecessary, even antiquated? Apparently not.

For one thing, not all forms of communication are created equal. Phone calls allow for immediate feedback, so you can be sure your message is being heard and properly understood.


More generally, though, it turns out that phone calls, e-mails, and texts aren’t really substitutes for one another. We don’t text instead of talking, we text in addition to talking. A Pew Research survey from 2011 found that people who send or receive more than 50 texts a day also take 30 phone calls a day.

And while you might think that young “digital natives” will someday make phone calls obsolete, or that older folks are the ones keeping the tradition alive, that doesn’t seem to be true either. In defiance of that stereotype which paints millennials as text-obsessed and screen-addicted, the average 15-to-19-year-old spends about 11 minutes talking on the phone every day. That’s not just more time than they spent in 2003, it’s more than any other age group and twice as much as their 35-to-54-year-old parents.

Despite the frenzied pace of technological change, this is one of those cases where the old cliche happens to be true. The more phones change, the more our calling habits stay the same.

Evan Horowitz digs through data to find information that illuminates the policy issues facing Massachusetts and the United States. He can be reached at evan.horowitz@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeHorowitz