An Exploratory Study of Youth and their Use of MP3 Devices in Mass Transit Spaces in Boston

William O. Lesitaokana

University of Botswana


This study explored the interactive relationship between young people and MP3 technologies on mass transit spaces in Boston. Despite expectations that MP3 devices are exclusively significant for listening to music while travelling, this study has established that young people in Boston have resorted to putting the devices to many other distinct uses, such as to create personal media spaces; block away potential strangers; displace self out of mass transit spaces and for personal identity and social status. While using MP3 devices, these young people are withdrawn from public spaces. Also, they occasionally disturb others by singing along with the music that plays on their devices. However, with the introduction of new digital communication technologies, such as smartphones, which are quickly replacing traditional MP3 players, it is not yet known how much impact these devices have in the everyday lives of urban youth.


MP3 device, Boston, youth, mass-transit spaces, social interaction, personal spaces


A few months before undertaking this study, I was riding on the Green Line subway train from Lechmere to Boylston Station in Boston. Almost all of the passengers were seated except for three young ladies in their early twenties who rushed onto the train just before it took off. I had taken a seat behind two elderly women. When one of the two elderly women in front of me exited the train at the North Station, immediately one of the three young ladies took the seat that the woman had vacated without hesitation. Within a short while, I noticed the young lady removing headphones from her handbag and plunking them in her ears. She started to enjoy music from her iPod, occasionally nodding her head. While the subway train approached the next stop, the Government Centre, the second elderly woman who occupied the seat closer to the window stood up in an attempt to prepare to exit the train. The young lady with the iPod did not notice the elderly woman who kept trying to get her attention; she was lost in her thoughts, in her own ‘private space’. I hesitated for a while, before tapping on the young lady’s shoulder to let her know that she needed to give way to the woman. While the elderly woman rushed to the door to exit the train, the young lady thanked me for taking her out of her own little world. This led to me thinking about how the use of digital media technologies can easily alienate users from their surrounding public spaces.

Boston Subway Station

Figure 1. 3D artistic impression of the Boston Subway Station

The City of Boston

Boston, a city with a history dating back to the 1600s, has developed over the years into a regional hub in northeast USA (City of Boston, 2011). Like other global urban cities, Boston is a big modern city that consists of several neighborhoods that include Cambridge, South Boston, Dorchester, Mattapan, Jamaica Plain, Mission Hill, Fenway, Brighton, Charlestown and West Roxbury, among others. These neighborhoods are linked by buses and subway routes, such as the Blue, Green, Red, Orange and Silver Line, under the management of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA, 2010). Thorns (2002) highlights that in many developed cities across the world the places where people work are often located elsewhere, away from their homes, and as a result, travelling to work places by private or public transportation becomes a routine. In Boston for instance, many young people frequently travel on buses, subway and trains between their homes, work places, colleges and places of interest, such as recreational parks, sporting parks, shopping malls, restaurants, cinemas, theatres and entertainment centers. Expectations are that while travelling on mass transit spaces, people face travel anxieties due to long journeys. In his study of Environmental Psychology, Bounds (2004) identifies the following issues in regard to the city, self and society shared space, “stressful environments” and “finding our way in space” (p.117). Although his study is focused on space as a location and a place of habitation, Bounds (2004) makes us understand that humans respond to their environments differently. According to Bounds (2004) ‘shared space’ refers to public space; ‘stressful and beneficial environments’ refers to environment stress and insecurity, while ‘finding our way in space’ refers to our ways of comprehending and engaging in the management of the spaces that we inhabit. As Hubbard (2006) proposes, to network between city spaces and our homes we need to employ some form of adeptness. Therefore, during travel many people, especially youth, are found with headphones in their ears, either pretending to listen to, or listening to music. Bull (2004) sees the use of digital technologies in this regard as a means to create a private and personal space within public settings.

Youth and MP3 Devices

Nowadays, MP3 devices, such as an Apple iPod, mobile phones and personal stereo devices are popularly used by youth in mass transit spaces (Gibbs, Bracey, & Gay, 2009). Although nowadays mobile phones may be classified as MP3 players, they were not considered as part of this study. During the period in which this study was conducted, whereas MP3 devices were popularly used by young people to play music, photograph digital still images and record video, mobile phones were ordinarily useful to make calls and send text messages, and as a result. Studies by scholars such as Caronia and Caron (2004), Hjorth (2008) and Green (2003) that took place before this study was undertaken also attest to this, particularly since the slant of their literature is on the social and cultural implications of the mobile phone than its practical uses. According to Simun (2009), while travelling MP3 devices afford young people access to their preferred recorded music. Users first spend hours preparing a collection of songs in their MP3 devices, and then play the music later (Bull, 2005). Using MP3 devices, users constantly create a world of music that helps them re-construct their travelling experiences (Simun, 2009). In addition to listening to music, it is known that MP3 devices are also useful to young people for watching videos and playing games while travelling. These devices are preferred because they are miniature and portable, with long lasting battery power that can last for a full day during continuous use of the device. MP3 devices assure users some level of companionship, filling in the spaces between interaction with others and their daily travels (Bull, 2005; Simun, 2009). In a study of young people and their use of personal music devices, McCarthy and Wright (2005) observed that college students use MP3 devices to play music continually while they walk to school, in between the lectures and while they socialize. McCarthy and Wright (2005) concluded that the music that plays in the users’ MP3 device would take them out of their surrounding public spaces. Similarly, MP3 devices are important to college students for delivering content, such as accessing educational podcasts (Gibbs, et al., 2009). In another study, Gibbs et al (2009) reported that in 2004, Duke University provided freshmen with Apple iPods containing orientation schedules, and later, these students would then use the devices to access podcasts of recorded lectures and discussions. Concurring with Gibbs et al (2009), Chan and Lee (2005) also point out that MP3 devices are useful to support mobile learning and deliver educational podcasts, thus opening up opportunities for students to access learning materials during their studies. Moreover, Du Gay et al (1997) consider that the ways in which consumers use personal stereos signify these artifacts as cultural devices.

However, despite positive uses, MP3 devices are also found to negatively impact upon the lives of youth. According to Hjorth (2008), while portable digital devices provide convergent media content, the devices are also marked by ‘divergence’ since they change the way young people play and interact amongst themselves. Additionally, it is observed that new technological devices, such as MP3 devices, shape youth’s participation in social spaces (Humphreys, 2010), and also have implications on youth cultural behaviors. For instance, in a story written in the technology section of the CNN website it is highlighted that PDAs, MP3 players, and other personal gadgets when used in public spaces sometimes cause irritation (Cox, 2007). They story goes on to report that today many young people live in a ‘high-tech’ world, and as a result they display bad manners while using their personal digital technologies (Cox, 2007). In other studies, it has been established that with MP3 devices, young people are exposed to risky behaviors, such as playing the devices at high volumes which can affect their hearing (Vogel, Verschuure, van der Ploeg, Brug, & Raat, 2009). Constant interactions with MP3 devices while driving has also been found to effect driver’s performance (Chisholm, Caird, & Lockhart, 2008).

As noted by Bull (2004), there is a deficiency in the literature on the social interaction between people and portable stereo technologies in public spaces. To date, the few empirical studies that are recorded include those conducted by Simun (2009), Chisholm, Caird and Lockhart (2008), Bull (2005), Chan and Lee (2005), Levey, Levey and Fligor (2011) and Vogel et al (2009). According to Bull (Bull, 2004) much of the literature focuses upon ‘fixed domestic forms of media uses’. Therefore, the purpose of this study was to attempt to fill this gap by extending the literature on the interactive relationship between young people and MP3 devices. To do this, ethnographic explorations were conducted on young people aged between 18 and 24 in Boston City from in 2008. Specifically, the study focused on youth who travelled in Boston’s mass transit spaces, such as buses, subway and trains, to investigate the use of MP3 devices and the behavioral impacts from using them in mass transit spaces.

T-Bus in Boston

Figure 2. 3D artistic impression of T-Bus in Boston

Research Questions

The nature of this study was exploratory in that it allowed the researcher to examine the interactive relationship between youth and their use of MP3 players within mass transit spaces in urban settings, with the aim of expanding knowledge of the relationship between youth and digital communications technologies. The specific questions that this study proposed to address are as follows:

RQ 1: What are the uses to which MP3 devices are put, especially while in mass transit spaces, by young people in Boston?

RQ 2: While using MP3 devices in mass transit spaces, what sought of cultural and social behaviors are commonly displayed among young people?

To address these questions participants were asked to state the significance of using MP3 devices while travelling. Participants were also requested to describe their experiences with MP3 devices while on mass transit spaces. In addition, participants were asked to state how the use of MP3 players effected their social interactions with family, friends and other passengers in mass transit spaces. Similarly, those who stated that they occasionally use an MP3 device were asked to further explain the differences between travelling with and without the device.


Using an ethnographic approach, this study sought to establish the ‘why?’ and ‘how?’ of youth’s decision-making with regard to their use of MP3 devices while travelling between homes, colleges and other public places. Ethnography was chosen for this study because it put the researcher in the middle of the data and the subject matter was examined from the participants’ point of view (Brewer, 2000). Caron and Caronia (2007) noted “by situating users and technologies in a narrative framework (where, when, how, why), stories about technologies establish reasons for adoption and use, practical values of technologies and their expected role in problem solving (p. 218).” According to Machin (2002), ethnography is a practicable research design to explore the social meanings of people’s lives in naturally occurring settings. Participants in this study were selected through purposeful sampling, and the rationale for their selection was based on the following; their willingness to participant in the study, aged between 18 and 24, living in Boston, and using any of Boston’s mass transit buses, subway and trains at least three times a week. The study focused on young people since, prior conducting this study, a majority of them were often seen with headphones in their ears. Specifically, this study made use of non-participant observation of twelve subjects (six males and females) while they boarded and travelled in the Orange line subway trains and buses within a six-month period. Non-participant observations took place during selected mornings and evenings, targeting participants in their inbound and outbound journeys, between Malden and Downtown Crossing stations. Non-participant observation is an applicable method to investigate the lives of youth (Marshall & Rossman, 2010). During non-participant observation the researcher takes a detached stance from the activities undertaken by the subjects to record their behaviors (Cargan, 2007; Walliman & Baiche, 2001). While observing the participants the researchers were interested in establishing the interaction between themselves and their MP3 devices, finding out how the participants interact with other passengers in mass transit spaces, and also exploring the mass transit environment and the activities that the participants in this study were involved in. During observations, field notes were taken to record explanations of the social activities they were involved in, and also to ensure accurate descriptions of what was happening while they used their MP3 devices. This was done in consideration of Walsh’s (2004) remarks that “field notes should also, where possible, record speech and action in relation to who was present, where the events occurred and at what time (p. 234).”

In addition to non-participant observation, semi-structured interviews were conducted with twenty participants, including the ten who were initially involved in the non-participant observations. Interviews are appropriate to be used alongside non-participant observations, to obtain verbal reports of “behaviors, meanings, attitudes and feelings that are never directly observed” during non-participant observations (Brewer, 2000, p. 63). In this study, semi-structured interviews opened the study to other residents of Greater Boston, who commuted on the Red, Green, Blue and Silver Line subway, trains and buses. Interviewing these subjects involved asking the participants questions, and probing them to share ideas and recording the conversations (Silverman, 2006).


Participants in this study were exclusively students, and the findings revealed that they mostly travelled between their homes and places such as colleges, public libraries and temporary work places. While travelling on bus, subway and trains, these young people preferred to listen to music and access multimedia from their MP3 devices. Others mentioned that while on mass transit spaces they use their MP3 devices to block away potential strangers. MP3 devices are also useful to guarantee Boston youth some personal identity and social status. These significant uses of the MP3 device by youth in Boston’s mass transit spaces are discussed further in the next sections.

Accessing Music and Media from MP3 Devices

This study revealed that Boston’s mass transit routes between people’s homes and colleges and/or workplaces are usually long journeys. As a result, youth in Boston have decided to contrive ways in which they can conveniently occupy travel spaces within these routes. In this regard, the use of MP3 devices to access music and other media, such as photographs and video, for entertainment purposes while in mass transit spaces has turned out to be a convenient practical approach. Since MP3 devices have huge spaces to store large chunks of music, users record music and store it in their MP3 devices, and then access it later when travelling. Shaun [3] pointed out:

My iPod is my best companion, whenever and wherever I travel, I always carry my music with me.

According to participants, the music and multimedia that young people enjoy from their MP3 devices is significant in two ways. Firstly, while listening to music, they are able to displace themselves out of mass transit spaces. Secondly, music helps them to enrich their personal spaces and gain some individual privacy and personal safety within mass transit spaces. Consider what Christina said:

My journeys from home to school are always long and boring. While I enjoy music from my iPod, I feel emotionally withdrawn from my surrounding travel spaces.

The participants also mentioned that music from their MP3 devices have helped them to conveniently negotiate travel within Boston’s cityscapes. According to these participants, since Boston is a metropolitan city, and the buses, subway and trains that they board regularly pass through the same buildings and landmarks everyday, as a result an MP3 device is an appropriate device to help them to dissociate from these environments. Similarly, through the music, they emotionally escaped mass transit spaces, and sometimes without realizing, they arrived at their destinations quickly. Nelly pondered:

Imagine travelling on the same route and passing the same buildings every day, those buildings often remind me of how long I would have to travel to get home. While enjoying music from my MP3 player, I sometimes forget altogether about these buildings, and my journeys seem shortened.

According to the participants, music and media from MP3 devices are also good replacements to help them suspend travel boredom and virtually take them out of the atmosphere on the bus, subway and train. Some participants mentioned that travel spaces, especially the underground trains, are very disturbing. Long minutes of underground travel and news of earthquakes occurring at other places remain in the travellers’ minds, and according to Nate that is a terrifying experience:

While travelling in an underground train, and then remembering that it is actually underground, I get worried. By listening to music from my iPod or cell phone, I am emotionally withdrawn from these places.

Blocking Away Potential Strangers

Subway Train in Boston

Figure 3. 3D artistic impression of Subway-Train in Boston

Young people in Boston also use MP3 players to block away potential strangers. Although interviewees in this study agreed that this does not happen on public buses, it has turned out to be a common activity while they travel on subway and trains. This is because unlike on the buses, the sitting arrangements in train carriages allow five to six passengers to sit next to each other and travel together. Often times these passengers are strangers, but because some journeys are long and exhausting, they want to initiate interaction with other passengers whom they have never met before. Consider Julie’s remarks:

Sometimes I find myself sitting next to strangers, and often times these people would want to talk to me. I use my MP3 player as a shield to prove to these strangers that I am not interested in talking to them.

While some of the participants also acknowledged that they have never experienced any cases of crime while in Boston’s mass transit spaces, and that there is guaranteed security, they still find it strange to talk to people who they have never known, and would be meeting for the first time on subway and trains. They also stated that while some strangers had still wanted to try and initiate conversations with them, they would use a hand to temporarily remove their headphones from one ear and after answering, they pluck the device back again as a sign that they do not want to continue with the conversation. The participants also agreed that putting on headphones while in Boston’s mass transit spaces is a well-known indicator that one does not want to be disturbed.

Personal Identity and Social Status

The prevalence of young people in Boston’s mass transit spaces carrying different types of MP3 devices may reflect how important it is for many of them to own a device. According to many young people in Boston, the use of MP3 devices guarantees them some level of personal identity and social status within their social groups. The participants were asked to state their preference with regard to MP3 players, and most of them mentioned that they use an Apple iPod. However, some of the participants also mentioned that sometimes they would use their cell phone, such as blackberry bold and iPhone, in place of their iPods. While some were given MP3 devices as birthday presents by their parents, others stated that they received the device for free from Apple retailers as part of Apple’s educational deal to students’ who purchased Apple products, such as Mac computers and laptops. The participants also mentioned that an Apple iPod guaranteed them a feeling of satisfaction and social status among their peers. Shaun went on to mention:

Everyone use an iPod nowadays. When I first started seeing people on subway trains carrying an iPod, I coveted it, and then I bought one for myself.

Like any other younger generation in an urban society, while young people in Boston are seen with an MP3 device in mass transit spaces, they also feel they belong to the ‘techno world’ and they too are ‘techno-savvy’.

Youth Experiences With/Without MP3 Devices

According to the participants, MP3 devices come loaded with functional features, and the devices are efficient for playing song loops, fast-forwarding songs and setting volume levels to specific intensities that interest users. While travelling on buses, subway and trains, users continually interact with their MP3 device to adjust some of these functional features. Contrastingly, other passengers without MP3 devices were observed reading newspapers, and others would chat with relatives, family, friends and colleagues. Although many of the participants in this study acknowledged that travelling without an MP3 device is an unacceptable experience nowadays, they also admitted that there were times when the device becomes irrelevant, such as while travelling with parents and close friends. As Christina explained:

It feels rude to put on headphones and listen to music when travelling with my parents and close friends. Family and friendship conversations often take precedence, and one cannot afford to be distracted by an MP3 device.

Participants also mentioned that there are times when an MP3 device looses battery power because of continuous long hours of use. However, to avoid this from happening, often users desist from using the devices during busier moments that require much of their attention, such as during class and when meeting with peers and friends. Users would then switch the device back on immediately when they embark on outbound journeys between colleges and/or workplaces and the home. Also, since MP3 devices come in many brands and are expensive to purchase, participants concurred that they felt prompted to purchase a new device only when the old one became damaged and when they felt that it was old.

User’s Behaviors with MP3 Devices

Although the participants concurred that MP3 devices are significant for use during travel, some of them especially those who seldom used the devices revealed that frequent users sometimes displayed inappropriate behaviors. While using MP3 devices, participants were observed spending time fiddling with their devices. Others were observed reading books and newspapers while also plunking headphones in their ears. Asked to define how they relate to their surroundings while using the MP3 device, a majority of the participants acknowledged that their MP3 devices were more important to them. Users also revealed that MP3 devices have individualized them in that while they use the device, other people do not seem to exist anymore. Other participants cited that they gave much attention to their MP3 devices to adjust their functions, so much that sometimes they missed their bus and train stops. Some of the participants pointed out further that their friends would often repeatedly fiddle with the MP3 device, thus ignoring other friends travelling with them. One of the interviewees declared:

It is even difficult to take these people from their own little world, in that the moment they remove their headphones to respond to you in a conversation, they would keep it back into their ear in a minute.

While tinkering with an MP3 device, communication with friends and family in travel spaces is easily interrupted, and one also looses touch with the surroundings. Nelly also remarked:

It annoys me to realize that a conversation with your friend is less important compared to the music one enjoys from their MP3 player.

This study also revealed that youth’s continuous use of MP3 devices in Boston’s mass transit spaces has practically became a habit. The participants also mentioned that some MP3 users are sometimes found to disturb other passengers while they sing along the music that plays on their devices.


Overall, this study has explored several benefits of MP3 devices on mass transit spaces in Boston. The results from this study showed that accessing music and media from MP3 devices during travel is significant to help travellers reconstruct their travelling spaces within public spaces. MP3 devices have also been referred to as mobile media, being credited for re-inventing the home out in the world (Hills, 2009b). The MP3 devices have the potential to excite users and keep them occupied while on mass transit spaces. As McQuire (2008) pointed out, through media convergence users are able to disengage and disconnect from the physical ‘spaces and time’, as they recreate their personal spaces in shared public spaces. Since mass transit spaces are shared spaces, these spaces can present strange atmospheres, and travellers are sometimes confronted by fear. Kemp (1995, p. 26) suggests that while travellers occupy these spaces, their minds can be clouded by threats of ‘vandalism, blood lust, indiscriminate aggressiveness, gun shots and killings’. Music and media from users’ MP3 devices help them forget these threats, as songs are contained in their thoughts. In the same way, as young people plunk headphones on their ears, potential strangers are easily blocked away.

Obtaining personal identity and social status through digital technologies has been commonly reported among young people in many societies (Cho, Zuniga, Rojas, & Shah, 2003; Green, 2003; Hills, 2009a). As highlighted by Flew (2004), new technologies afford young people the chance to associate with people who share the same interests. In socialist groups and public places, such as mass transit spaces, many young people want to see their personal identities edified, and their status uplifted among their peers. Personal technologies, such as MP3 devices, are also relevant for their use as ‘mirrors’ for the presentation of self among young people (Hills, 2009a). The music and media stored and accessed from MP3 devices sometimes reflects users’ interests and symbolic identities. It is also no surprise that young people in this study preferred an iPod in this regard. Sexton (2009) points out that the iPod is famous because of the following factors “design, usability, advertising and the launch, in 2003, of the Apple iTunes store (p. 104).” Many young people purchase a lot of songs online from the Apple iTunes store, and then store them in the iPod. According to Bull (2006), an Apple iPod is a significant device that conveys people’s own auditory identities while they move from one place to another. MP3 devices are also suitable to afford users an auditory experience and private space during their travel in urban lifestyles. Since its launch in 2001, the iPod has been developed to have many functions, shapes, colors and sizes. In addition, participants who attend college singled out the newest version of an Apple iPod, the Nano, because it looks stylish, comes in bright colors and it is easy to function. Consider Nelson’s remarks:

It appears that an iPod is a good companion for most of the passengers who travel on this train. To me, the device is both stylish and convenient for use.

This study also revealed that the use of MP3 players affects the nature of communication and interaction. While listening to their portable media players, users are placed within their personalized zones in that their bodies are not where their psychological wonderings are. Their thoughts and minds are engaged elsewhere. Bull (2004) postulated that the use of portable media devices demonstrate a clear ‘auditory re-conceptualization’ of the spaces of habitation embodied in users’ strategies of placing themselves ‘elsewhere’ in urban environments. Rephrasing Bull’s (2004) statements, youth’s interactions with MP3 devices helped them to avoid the same travel scenery that they were involuntary seeing every day. As Simun (2009) also pointed out, travellers sometimes consider their travel spaces to be hectic. Through their use, MP3 devices conveniently help users negotiate long journeys and travel anxieties. While travelling, the thoughts of many travellers are embedded in music and multimedia from their MP3 players, sometimes even in their interactions with the MP3 device. Clearly, these devices have replaced other human beings and have been personified by their users.


This study has revealed the following benefits from using MP3 devices in mass transit: accessing music and multimedia, for personal identity and social status, displacement of self, and also to block away potential strangers. However, while using MP3 devices, users are occasionally alienated from public spaces, they ignore other passengers and may sometimes disturb others by singing along to the music that plays on the device. Nonetheless, new digital communication technologies, such as smartphones, continue to be introduced, and through convergence, these technologies are quickly replacing traditional MP3 players. Similarly, because of the new innovative developments that are being made, other new MP3 devices with more advanced functional features are usually introduced. It is not yet known as to how much impact these devices would leave in the everyday lives of urban youth.

While being introductory, this research was limited to Boston city, and to youth in Boston. Although preliminary, this study basically helps researchers to understand significant social and cultural factors with regard to youth’s use of MP3 technologies to negotiate specific situations, such as mass transit spaces in urban settings. Further and more in-depth research of young people and technology in many more major urban cities is recommended. This should not be to only establish the factors that necessitate MP3 use in mass transit spaces, but also to establish the degree of use and level of satisfaction from the use these devices, as well as to establish the cultural implications that result.


1. 3D images included are artistic design of the bus, train and T-stops in Boston. These are the places/spaces where non-participant observation of youth participants were done.

2. All participants referenced in this study have been given pseudonyms: This was done as part of the agreement made with them that their real names would not be disclosed in this study. Nelly and Julie were students at Tufts University; Nate, Shaun and Christina were students at Emerson College; and Nelson was a student at Boston University.


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William Lesitaokana is a New Media lecturer at the University of Botswana. He teaches undergraduate courses in digital media studies, online media production and motion graphics. His research interests include media technologies and youth cultures, new media theories, and multimedia journalism practices. He has undertaken the following research projects; online newspapers in developing countries; media in Botswana; and the use of broadcast radio for social change. William Lesitaokana bagged an MA in Media Arts from Emerson College, and currently, he is studying for a PhD in Sociology at Griffith University, focusing his studies on the interactive relationship between mobile phones and youth from a non-Western perspective.

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