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Cell Phones: Friends or Foes?

December 15, 2011
By Maryann Lawlor, SIGNAL Connections
E-mail About the Author

Remember a time without cell phones? It wasn’t all that long ago when communicating with someone other than the people in the room was only possible from home, the office or a telephone booth. For better and worse, those days are long gone.

During the past 10 years, growth in the wireless industry has been nothing less than phenomenal. According to the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association (CTIA), the number of wireless subscriber connections in June 1996 was 38.2 million, or slightly above the 2010 California population of 37.2 million according to the U.S. Census Bureau. By June 2011, the total number of wireless subscriber connections had jumped to 322.9 million. In other words, cell phone ownership is so pervasive today that it outnumbers the population of the United States and its territories of 312.9 million. Wireless penetration was at 102.4 percent … and growing.

The good news is the huge boost this one industry has caused to the economy. The CTIA survey reports that annualized total wireless revenues jumped from $21.5 billion in June 1996 to $164.6 billion in June 2011. Back in 1996, wireless data usage was unheard of; however, by June 2011, it was a $55.4 billion industry. And all those text messages that everyone has come to rely on catapulted from 113.5 billion to 2.12 trillion between June 2006 and June 2011.

Any way you look at it, the numbers are staggering, but at what cost? Yes, a cell phone is invaluable during an emergency. By June 2011, E-911 calls totaled more than 398,000 per day. And nothing beats a cell phone to call for help when stranded on a highway.

But speaking of the highway, what about that car in front of you going 10 miles below the speed limit and swerving between lanes because the driver is on a cell phone talking—or, much worse, attempting to text? According to David Teater, senior director, transportation initiatives, National Safety Council, drivers using a cell phone are four times more likely to be involved in a crash. And, in about 10 percent of all crashes, the drivers were using cell phones. This activity has become so prevalent that laws in nine states, Washington, D.C., and the Virgin Islands prohibit the use of handheld cell phones while driving. And as obvious as it may sound, laws that ban text messaging for all drivers have been instituted in 35 states, Washington, D.C., and Guam.

Cell phones have caused a major change in the work place as well, which is no longer confined to four walls or a single building. Now, supervisors presume—and some demand—24/7 access to their employees even while they’re on leave. Even when it is not expected, employees feel a certain obligation to check their email via their smartphones at least a few times while not physically in the office. While certain business demands compel this reasonable activity, the prevalence of cell phone ownership undeniably has expanded the boundaries.

The effects on societal norms and common courtesies also are becoming more widespread. Texting while speaking with someone in person or in a meeting—an action that only a few years ago would be considered rude—has become acceptable behavior. Talking on the phone while checking out at a store is no longer a big deal—never mind that the others in line are entitled to prompt service.

The bottom line is that inevitably it is not the technology that creates the problem or delivers the perfect solution; it is the way people use it. Used responsibly, cell phones are a marvelous invention that has saved an untold number of lives. Used without a thought for common courtesy and respect for others, they are an unnecessary intrusion into the here and now.

What impact have cell phones had on your life? They’re here to stay, so do the benefits outweigh the hassles they cause? Will society as a whole settle into comfortable acceptance of the interruptions they can cause in life, or are they the new culture of the digital age?