What's the evidence? How much do we read on our phones?

March 2019

FactsBy Earnsy Liu

Alas, despite trawling through screeds of articles and reports, I don’t know how much users read on their phones. I can’t tell you that typical mobile phone users spend X min a day or Y per cent of their time reading.

But hey, don’t go! Let me explain why I don’t have an answer (it depends what you call reading) and make it up to you with other interesting, related findings. Tell you what: I’ll even mention sex, love, and Kamasutra. (Don’t worry if you’re at work — it’s safe to keep reading.)

A smiling brown teddy bear is holding a mobile phone with its left paw. The phone is balanced on its left knee.

Image by Bru-nO

Main finding: it depends what you call reading

I couldn’t find research with clear, corroborating answers. Researchers seemed to define reading differently. One study concludes we don’t read much on our phones, another says most of what we do on our phones is reading, and a third focuses solely on book reading.

One finding: we barely read on phones

In an 11-day study, researchers instructed approximately 150 American smartphone users to list how they used their devices each day. This showed phones were used for all manner of things, but reading was minimal (Müller, Gove, Webb, & Cheang, 2015).

Five highest incidences of mobile phone use, then reading at no. 14! Image shows a bar graph with five blue bars and a much shorter yellow bar. Text messages are way ahead, with nearly 12,000 incidences. Then come emails, phone calls, and social networking with about 4,000 to 5,000 incidences each. Then come games. Reading is last, with fewer than 400 incidences.

Figure 1 : Reading didn’t make the top ten phone activities by number of incidences. It lagged not just behind communication (texts, email, phone calls), but also behind games, photos, shopping, and music, and more (adapted from Müller et al, 2015).

Another finding: we read heaps

At the other extreme, by classifying anything with text as reading, researchers Brown, McGregor, and McMillan concluded that ‘… the dominant media consumption activity on mobile phones is reading in some form or another … news, messages, emails, websites, games, reviews, maps, notes and so on’ (Brown et al, 2014; p. 228; italics in original).

Interestingly, only one participant read books. The researchers vividly describe how she fits different forms of reading into her day. She uses ‘both the Kindle application and iBook on [her] iPhone, reading for twenty minutes or so during [her] commute to work . . . spends 4 minutes on social media reading (Twitter and Facebook) during a lunch break … then switches to a third form of reading – a webpage review of a new film. Lastly, when at home that evening she checks the BBC news application’ (Brown et al, 2014, p. 228).

Close-up photo of two hands cradling an iPhone. The person is scrolling through their Twitter feed.

Image by Marten Bjork

A third finding: book reading in developing countries

Then a finding on what is indisputably reading, but only book reading, and only in seven countries: Ethiopia, Ghana, India, Kenya, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Zimbabwe.

UNESCO surveyed 4,300 users of the Worldreader Mobile (WRM) app. This app is popular in developing countries, presumably because it works on a variety of phones including feature phones and makes books available ‘for a fraction of the cost of a physical book’ (West & Chew, 2014; p. 16).

The survey found:

  1. Respondents were mainly men (77%), probably reflecting phone ownership rates.
  2. Women read more often and for longer.

Women read more than men in UNESCO’s survey. The image shows three line graphs sloping steeply up from left to right. In each case, men’s reading behaviour is represented by the lower left point and women’s by the higher right point. Women read about 3½ times more (11 times a month). They read nearly twice as long each time (19 min). Finally, they read more than six times as much per month (207 min).

Figure 2 : UNESCO’s survey showed that women using the WRM app read 3½ hrs a month, far more than men’s ½ hr. Is that partly because more men felt there was limited appealing content (64 men vs 46 per cent women respectively)? (Adapted from West & Chew, 2014).

Other findings: We do read on our phones

While we do not know how much users are reading on phones, we do know they are increasingly doing so. I’d imagine this is partly because more of us have smartphones.

Research New Zealand’s survey of over 1,000 Kiwis aged 18 and above found that by 2015, 70 per cent of Kiwis owned smartphones (Research New Zealand, 2015). Not impressed?

Look at the increase in two years though:

Kiwis who own or have access to smartphones increased nearly 1½ times from 2013 to 2015. The line graph shows 48% in 2013, 59% in 2014, and 70% in 2015.

Figure 3 : Kiwis with access to a smartphone climbed steadily from 2013 to 2015 (adapted from Research New Zealand, 2015).

Here’s what we know:

  • Reading on phones is growing.
  • Reading is often reading news.
  • Social media is an important source of news.
  • App users read more.
  • Some demographic groups are more likely to read on their phones.
  • Most visitors to the TechCommNZ website use desktops.

Reading on phones is growing

A 2014 Nielsen survey revealed that 54% of e-book buyers read on their smartphones, up from 24% in 2012 (cited in Snyder, 2015). That’s more than double in two years!

To keep things in perspective though:

  1. Those reading eBooks remain a minority. According to a 2016 Pew Research study, 65 per cent of Americans had read a print book in the last 12 months, but only 13 per cent had read one on their smartphones (Perrin, 2016).
  2. A third of Americans have no smartphone. Mainly because the device or data plan is too costly (36%) or because they don’t need one or are happy with their current phone (29%; Horrigan & Duggan, 2015).

Reading is often reading news

In Research New Zealand’s survey, 378 respondents preferred their smartphones to other devices (e.g. tablet, laptop, desktop). Of these, six in ten used it to read newspapers or magazines, while less than one in five used it to read eBooks (Research New Zealand, 2015).

Smartphone lovers in NZ are more likely to read news than eBooks. Graph of twelve bars showing how smartphone lovers use their phones. The most popular activity is looking for reference information (86% of users), then social networking (78%), then online banking (76%). Reading newspapers comes sixth (61%) and reading eBooks comes twelfth (18%).

Figure 4 : Percentage of smartphone lovers (Kiwis who prefer their smartphones to other devices) who use their phones for different activities. Their reading material of choice is newspapers and magazines over eBooks (adapted from Research New Zealand, 2015).

Similarly in the US, ‘There is a substantial audience for mobile news. Nearly the entire population of adult mobile users [89%] consume news on their devices’ (Knight Foundation, 2016a).

Social media is an important source of news

News is increasingly being consumed on social media sites, especially by young, affluent users (aged 18–24 with incomes over US$75k; Knight Foundation, 2016b). The type of news depends on the platform (Knight Foundation, 2016a):

The news you read varies by social media platform. Two sets of bar graphs show what people read on different social media platforms. The graphs on the left show that entertainment is by far the most popular subject, except on LinkedIn. On LinkedIn, the most popular subject is finance and business. The graphs on the right indicate that the second most popular subjects are US news, politics, lifestyle, and technology.

Figure 5 : Entertainment news is popular on social media platforms except LinkedIn (adapted from Knight Foundation, 2016a).

If you’re wondering where social media users get their news: it’s partly from media outlets; partly (or more) from friends, contacts, and those they follow (Knight Foundation, 2016a).

App users read more

Those who read on their phones read more in apps than on websites. For example, ‘while the mobile news audience largely uses both app and sites the majority of mobile time is spent within apps’ (Knight Foundation, 2016a).

Online publishing platform Medium noticed a similar pattern: compared to desktop or mobile website users, mobile app users have more sessions (interactions within a certain period) and read more posts per session (Lindqvist, 2015).

Some demographic groups are more likely to read on their phones

Guess who, in the U.S., is most likely to pick up their phone when they read? Not who’s most likely to read, or who’s most likely to own a phone. But who, when they read, is more likely to pick up a phone than another device?

Blacks and Hispanics. Those below 30 years old. Those with high school qualifications or below. In contrast, Whites and those with college education are more likely to read on tablets. Those between 30 and 49 are equally likely to read on tablets and phones (Perrin, 2016).

I don’t know how this applies to New Zealand but it’s a good reminder to consider demographics in our work.

Most visitors to the TechCommNZ website use desktops

Most people visit our website on desktops; only three out of ten use their phones. These proportions were the same for 2017 and 2018. (Thanks to Katie Haggath for checking my numbers.)

Doughnut chart showing that most visits to the TechCommNZ website are on computers and laptops (67%). Next come mobiles (29%), then tablets (4%).

Figure 6 : Visits to our website have increased in the last two years, but the types of devices used haven’t changed. If you use your phone to access it, do email businessmanager@techcomm.nz with any feedback.

Wrapping up

Although we don’t know how much people read on their phones, we do know they read on their phones, especially news (via social media) and in apps.

Does it matter? Probably, because phones are part of our lives in a way that other mobile devices aren’t: ‘they are actually carried on the person … so that for much of the time the effort involved in getting them out is low. . . . iPads and laptops still need to be brought out of containers and carrying bags . . . . It is not that these devices change our daily routines as such . . . . Rather, the mobile exploits these existing regimes…’ (Brown et al, 2014, p. 231).

What now?

  • For a general discussion on reading on phones, watch this 2015 Wall Street Journal interview about reading on phones. The 3-min video discusses the jump in phone reading when Apple introduced iPhone 6, the convenience of phone reading, and why it’s hard to concentrate when reading on phones.
  • For the differences between reading on phones and laptops, including tips on designing for each difference, read Why reading on mobile is different (and what you can do about it). Note though, that much of this isn’t referenced, so though it makes sense, it’s not clear how much is based on evidence.

Oh, and the thing about sex, love, and Kamasutra? Those were popular search terms in the WRM app: sex was number 1, love was 5, and Kamasutra was 14 (West & Chew, 2014).


Brown, B., McGregor, M., & McMillan, D. (2014, September). 100 days of iPhone use: understanding the details of mobile device use. In Proceedings of the 16th international conference on Human-computer interaction with mobile devices & services (pp. 223-232). ACM. Retrieved from http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=

Horrigan, J. B. & Duggan, M. (2015). Home Broadband 2015. Retrieved from Pew Research Centre website: http://www.pewresearch.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/9/2015/12/Broadband-adoption-full.pdf

Knight Foundation. (2016a, May 11). News Goes Mobile: How People Use Smartphones to Access Information [Part 1]. Retrieved from https://medium.com/mobile-first-news-how-people-use-smartphones-to/news-goes-mobile-how-people-use-smartphones-to-access-information-53ccb850d80a

Knight Foundation. (2016b, May 11). Mobile America: How Different Audiences Tap Mobile News [Part 2]. Retrieved from https://medium.com/mobile-first-news-how-people-use-smartphones-to/mobile-america-how-different-audiences-tap-mobile-news-1c72525210d7

Lindqvist, G. (2015, October 8). How much do people read on their phones? Retrieved from Medium website: https://medium.com/data-lab/how-much-do-people-read-on-their-phones-3cb86e45826b

Müller, H., Gove, J. L., Webb, J. S., & Cheang, A. (2015, December). Understanding and comparing smartphone and tablet use: Insights from a large-scale diary study. In Proceedings of the Annual Meeting of the Australian Special Interest Group for Computer Human Interaction (pp. 427-436). ACM. Retrieved from https://pub-tools-public-publication-data.storage.googleapis.com/pdf/44200.pdf

Perrin, A. (2016). Book reading 2016. Retrieved from Pew Research Centre website: http://www.pewinternet.org/2016/09/01/book-reading-2016/

Research New Zealand. (2015). A report on a survey of New Zealanders’ use of smartphones and other mobile communication devices 2015 . Retrieved from Research New Zealand website: http://researchnz.com/pdf/Special Reports/Research New Zealand Special Report - Use of Smartphones.pdf

Snyder, B. (2015, August 12). 54% of e-book buyers are reading on their smartphones. Fortune. Retrieved from http://fortune.com/2015/08/12/reading-phones-mobile/

West, M., & Chew, H. E. (2014). Reading in the mobile era: A study of mobile reading in developing countries . UNESCO. Retrieved from http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0022/002274/227436e.pdf