| Friday, October 1, 2010 |

Dangers of Inattentive Cellular Phone Use

When people are talking on a mobile phone, they're often paying less attention than they should to what's going on around them. This can be dangerous in certain situations, such as around building sites or -- particularly -- when driving a car. One extreme case, which came to light on the international press wire services this summer, told of a man picked up while driving in the Israeli town of Netanya with a mobile phone glued to each ear. The man had become so engrossed in his conversations that he had taken to steering with his elbows -- and was flagged down by a policewoman who had noticed his car weaving treacherously from side to side.

While this is an exaggerated example, the use of mobile phones while driving is considered sufficiently dangerous by many governments that it is banned in at least a dozen countries, including Australia, Austria, Denmark, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Portugal, Poland, the Slovak Republic, Slovenia, Spain and Switzerland.

The problem of social alienation is perhaps the hardest to pin down, yet is potentially one of the most destructive results of a world over-reliant on wireless communications. Sociologists are already beginning to note that many people, especially those under 30 years old, are spending a great deal of time speaking to people they are not with, at the expense of those who are actually there.

A telling example comes from Finland, which has over 60% mobile penetration. There, entire groups of young people sitting together are frequently seen to be talking on their mobile phones to absent friends and colleagues.

It's the ultimate in social alienation, and indicative, say some, of a trend which threatens to eat away at our sense of social cohesion. Whether it's the novelty of the technology or our simple need to feel wanted, the human brain seems to register incoming electronic signals as inherently more urgent and important than the interpersonal signals coming from a fellow human being in front of us.

Team this with an almost universal desire to avoid personal contact -- witness the popularity of every kind of impersonal invention, from e-mail and the Internet to automatic teller machines -- and it's clear that alienation could prove a serious side effect of a technology whose selling point until now has often focused on slogans like "It's about communications between people" or "Connecting People".

On the other hand cellular
telephony has brought great and new freedoms for youngsters -- and increased security and peace of mind for their parents. It is now possible for young people equipped with cell phones to stay in touch with their parents and for parents to stay in touch with their children. This can help reduce or eliminate the need for meaningless restrictions on young people that were only in place because of parents' anxiety as to their childrens' activities or whereabouts. Costs need not even be a major issue, since these can be controlled through the use of pre-paid cards.

Aside from yet-unanswered questions relating to health, the positive use of
mobile technologies lies largely in our hands -- in the hands of government, when it comes to environmental issues and safety regulations; in the hands of operators, who can do much to ensure the smooth integration of the technology into our society, both in terms of equipment design and aesthetics, and through initiatives which help train people in mobile phone etiquette; in the hands of employers, who can take pains to ensure staff with corporate mobiles are not abused; and ultimately, in the hands of users, who need to cultivate a greater level of awareness and work to ensure that their phone use does not negatively impact the lives of those around them.

With a little effort on everyone's part, the benefits of mobile connectivity should serve to enhance our experience of life, offering us more freedom, and ultimately creating a better society in which people really do feel closer together.


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