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Some years ago, the term “mobile phone” was something of a misnomer. Phones were only “mobile” if you were very strong or if you had one installed in your car, since their batteries were extremely heavy. The phones were bigger than shoe boxes, and they cost thousands of dollars.

Today there are some 1.35 billion mobile phones. In some countries more than half the population own them. Most fit in the palm of your hand, and they are sometimes even provided free of charge.* The Australian journal The Bulletin reports: “Nearly as many of these devices are in use as [there are] TV sets and personal computers combined.” In over 20 countries, there are now more mobile phones than fixed phone lines. One industry expert describes mobile phones as not just a technological marvel but “a social phenomenon.”

What effect are mobile phones having on society? Are they friend or foe?
A Boon to Business

The booming sales of mobile phones are a boon to many businesses. One large firm stated: “The mobile telephone market is the largest consumer electronics segment ever.” In other words, more money is spent on mobile phones now than on any other electronic device in the past.

In Australia, for example, more than 15 million of the 20 million inhabitants own a mobile phone. The customers of just one of the many telephone companies in that country made 7.5 billion mobile-phone calls in a recent year. Worldwide, mobile phones generate billions of dollars a year for telecommunication companies. It is easy to see why big business views the mobile phone as a friend.
Creating a New Language

Many of the millions of messages exchanged between these high-tech devices are, not in the form of speech, but in the form of the written word. Instead of speaking into the handset, a growing number of mobile-phone users—especially youths—are using a facility called the Short Message Service (SMS). This service allows them, at relatively little expense, to type and send brief messages to each other. Because communicating in this way requires typing a message on the phone’s tiny keypad, SMS devotees use an abbreviated form of language that combines letters and numbers to make word sounds. Despite the inconvenience of composing and typing a message as opposed to speaking with the recipient, each month about 30 billion messages are exchanged worldwide.

What are all these messages about? A British study discovered that 42 percent of youths between the ages of 18 and 24 use SMS to flirt, 20 percent use this chic form of communication to ask a person out on a date, and 13 percent have used SMS to end a relationship.

Some social commentators worry that the mangled spelling and syntax used in SMS messages is harming the literacy skills of young ones. Others disagree, stating that the SMS phenomenon is “spawning the revival of writing in a new generation.” A spokesperson for a firm that produces an Australian dictionary told the Sun-Herald newspaper: “It’s not often we get the opportunity to develop a whole new style [of language] . . . the combination of text messaging [SMS] and the internet means young people are doing a lot more writing. [They] have to be fluent and articulate enough to pick up the style and master the in-words and the code . . . of the genre.”

Some Unfriendly Tendencies

While mobile phones are a useful tool both for socializing and for conducting business, to many employees these devices might sometimes seem more like a fetter than a friend—making them feel chained to the office. One survey found that 80 percent of advertising employees and 60 percent of construction workers feel pressured to be available, either to their employers or to clients, at all times. The pressure people feel to respond to a mobile-phone call no matter where they are or what they are doing is creating what one researcher calls a “culture of interruptions.” In response, engineers have developed a building material for use in restaurants and theaters that can block out mobile-phone signals.

More than just creating annoying intrusions, these ubiquitous devices have the potential to become a public enemy. A Canadian study found that using a mobile phone while driving is as dangerous as driving under the influence of alcohol. Professor Mark Stevenson, of the Injury Research Centre at the University of Western Australia, explains that holding a conversation on the telephone is considerably more difficult than just having a conversation in the car with someone. Despite the dangers and the fact that police in some places can fine offending drivers, a recent survey found that 1 in 5 Australian drivers sent SMS messages and one third made or received calls on their mobile handsets while driving.

The dangers of inappropriate mobile-phone use extend to air travel. While the wiring in newer aircraft is shielded from mobile-phone signals, some aircraft still in service are said to be susceptible to interference. New Scientist reports: “In tests aboard two airliners, Britain’s Civil Aviation Authority [CAA] has confirmed that cellphone radiation interferes with flight-critical electronics.” Identifying a key threat posed by the phones, a CAA spokesman said: “A cellphone emits more power the further it is from a base station. So as an aircraft climbs, the mobile signal increases in power, boosting the interference level at a critical time in a flight.” An Australian study found that personal electronic devices, including mobile phones, caused a number of incidents where commercial aircraft suffered in-flight problems because passengers ignored the warnings to turn the devices off while on board.
Mobile Phones and Cancer

Controversy still continues over whether the radio frequencies emitted from mobile phones and the base stations that relay their signals can cause cancer in humans. Because hundreds of millions of people use these devices, even if only a small percentage were to develop health problems, that would translate into a major health risk. Therefore, dozens of in-depth scientific studies have investigated the effect of mobile-phone radiation on living tissue. What conclusions have been reached?

The Independent Expert Group on Mobile Phones (IEGMP) released a report stating: “The Expert Group believes that, on the basis of the evidence currently available, there is no need for the general population to be worried about the use of mobile phones.” New Scientist also reported: “Despite scare stories in recent years, the majority of evidence to date suggests that exposure to mobile phone radio frequency emissions does not have adverse effects on health. Studies that have shown effects have proved difficult to reproduce.”

Because of lingering doubts about the health effects of mobile phones, millions of dollars continue to be poured into further research. Until a definitive answer is found, the IEGMP recommends the following: “Use [mobile] phones for as short a time as possible. Use phones with low specific energy absorption rate (SAR) values. Use hands-free kits and other devices provided they have been proved to reduce SAR.” The Expert Group also recommends that “children less than sixteen years of age should be discouraged from using mobile phones,” since the developing nervous system of children would make them “more vulnerable to any unrecognised health risks.”

Though dogged by controversy, the mobile phone is having a profound impact both economically and socially. Like its electronic cousins—the TV and the personal computer—the mobile phone has the potential to be either a useful slave or a demanding master. The power to determine whether it becomes friend or foe is literally in the hands of the user.

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