As the US begins to emerge from the coronavirus pandemic, Insider Intelligence expects growth in mobile time spent to slow. This relatively slow growth follows the huge move toward mobile in 2020, when the pandemic accelerated long-term trends of increased time spent with most mobile behaviors, in some cases by years. 

Throughout our forecast period, we expect overall mobile and smartphone usage to continue to add minutes at a steady rate. The arrival of 5G and introduction of advanced mobile capabilities should keep mobile time spent from plateauing for at least the next few years.

Mobile usage statistics

Mobile users’ time spent approached a third (33.2%) of all time spent with media in the US in 2021. By 2023, mobile usage will account for 35.0% of total media time. The 4:23 per day that the average US mobile user spent in 2021 also accounted for 54.8% of the 7:59 of digital media time per day.

A large majority (72.3%) of mobile time was spent on smartphones in 2021. This 3:10 is up a relatively small 4.6% year-over-year (YoY), but this follows 2020’s rapid 17.7% growth, which was the highest figure for smartphone time spent growth since 2014. 

Smartphone usage statistics

Most of the growth in smartphone time came from additional time spent by existing smartphone users, rather than the addition of new users. Among the 219.2 million adult smartphone users, the average time spent on smartphones in 2021 hit 3:46, up 8 minutes from 2020. 

There was no significant change in longer-term patterns of user growth. In 2019, the number of adult US smartphone users grew 4.1%. Growth slowed slightly to 3.2% during the pandemic year of 2020, and it will be below 2% through 2023. 

Mobile user preferences

Mobile users clearly prefer an app experience. App usage continues to increase steadily and accounts for the vast majority of time spent on mobile devices.

That said, the distinction between browsers and apps has been blurring for years. Much of browser time occurs in webview windows within apps. For instance, if you click on an article in the Facebook app, you’ll likely see the article in a browser rather than Facebook’s native Instant Articles format. Even beyond webview, mobile browsers will remain important for certain activities, such as shopping.

There are also signs that progressive web apps (PWAs), which replicate a native experience within a browser, are gaining traction. For one, they have the advantage of working on all mobile devices. Additionally, they avoid app stores’ commissions, possibly making them more appealing as developers become less tolerant of Apple App Store or Google Play Store tariffs.

The key to successful web apps, however, is delivering an app-like experience. For many applications, this will remain possible only within native apps; in fact, we expect native apps will continue to increase their share of mobile time spent throughout the forecast period.

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Top mobile user activities

Within both mobile browsers and apps on smartphones and tablets, mobile users spend more time listening to digital audio than doing anything else. Digital audio listening within mobile browsers accounted for an average of 21 minutes per day in 2021, up a minute from 2020. 

Social network time in browsers will decline through the forecast period, dipping to 11 minutes by 2023. Mobile video viewing on browsers will stay at 12 minutes until 2023, when it steps up to 13 minutes.

The additional 27 minutes of time spent in mobile apps in 2020 represented a 17.1% growth rate over 2019. Over a quarter of app time spent in 2021 was in audio apps (28.4%) and social network apps (26.0%). In fact, audio apps captured nearly an hour (0:55) of time spent in 2021. 

Video apps will come in third at 0:39, but their share continues to grow, standing at 20.0% in 2021. Games and messaging spiked in 2020 due to the pandemic, but we expect a slight decline in time spent going forward. 

Other apps, including travel, news, fitness, navigation, and shopping apps, only made up a combined 6.6 minutes, on average, per US adult in 2021, but this category is growing steadily.