Updated Sept. 16, 2014. Mary Grigsby has changed the age range in her study from 24-30 to 18-29. 

I’m a people watcher. A sociologist by training, I’m a strong believer in learning about cultural change by observing people’s behaviors and interactions and by asking them what they think, feel and do, and why.

Walking across the University of Missouri campus last fall I noticed a nuanced change: Collegiates weren’t wedded to their cell phones in public to the extent they had been only a year before. Cell phone use among young American adults was going up, wasn’t it? So what was going on? 

I had watched the cultural trend of increasing numbers of students at the University, where I work, using their cell phones between classes, talking, texting, checking social media or surfing right up to the moment class started. OK, if I’m honest, even using them surreptitiously during class. But now I was pretty sure I was picking up on a decreased use of handhelds by students as they hoofed it to their next class. I’m not saying people weren’t using their cell phones on the sidewalks, just that it seemed somewhat less than in previous years. 

Was this a cohort-based change? Come spring semester, it didn’t seem so, since there was also a change in the behavior of students in my graduate seminar, some of them were the same people who had been in a seminar the previous spring. The year before a number of students had their phones on the seminar table during class and frequently checked it for things that came up in discussion. In the spring of 2014 this was much less evident. 

These anecdotal observations sparked conversations with colleagues and students and led me to look at literature on young adult media use. It percolated in my mind as I wrote up analysis on work I was doing on cultural orientations and consumption, and sowed the seeds of my Reynolds fellowship, where I’ll be conducting a qualitative study of young adult careerists’ (18-29 years of age) digital media uses. 

Walking across the University of Missouri campus last fall I noticed a nuanced change: Collegiates weren’t wedded to their cell phones in public to the extent they had been only a year before.

The research will explore how perceptions, motivations and opportunities come together in shaping more than just adoption but transformation in the purposes, places and ways this cohort are using media. With some luck maybe the study will suggest some of the next important cultural trends in the use of media. 

The project integrates the consumption and cultural orientations research I’ve already done with my curiosity about how young careerists integrate and use media to meet their needs and enhance their lives in creative and varied ways. Methods include interviews and participant observation. 

Primary goals of the pilot research include generating data analysis and a preliminary report to:

  • Enhance capacity of media industry decision makers to hone delivery, format and content responding to the rapidly changing environment of media use reputed to be increasingly user driven.
  • Extend knowledge of the patterns of motivation that shape consumption of media, and the roles these changing patterns may play in transmitting and changing cultural norms, values and behaviors. Why uses of varied types of media may be embraced, rejected, discarded and/or transmitted are of central interest.
  • Contribute to building a model for ethnographic study of media use to include feedback loops with media. 

As to the niggling question about whether there really is a perceptible shift away from young adult public display and use of cell phones on the sidewalk and what the causes and implications of such a change might be, I’ll be looking for insights and any data available that addresses it. Stay tuned.

Mary Grigsby  
University fellow


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