They have been marketed as a way to make us all more “connected”, but a new academic study shows that mobile phones could be destroying people’s private lives and even affecting their ability to think.
A team based at the Cologne Institute for Economic Research catalogued the ways in which the mobile revolution has transformed family life and friendships as well as its impact on politics and economics.
They found that although mobile phones have enabled people to stay in touch instantly, they have also begun to change the way they conduct relationships and even how they speak to each other.
It argues that, unlike any other invention, the mobile phone has become an “extension of the body” which people take with them everywhere, enabling it to invade their private time with family and close friends.
Mobiles have become so ubiquitous that people no longer switch them off to have important conversations, meetings or even while having sex, the study, drawing together a range of academic research and survey evidence, points out.
It warns that while they can provide parents with important reassurance for about their children’s whereabouts, they could also be impeding the growing-up process by enabling neurotic adults to infringe on the natural “free space” young people need in ways not possible before.
And while enabling husbands and wives to “check on” each other throughout the day could strengthen relationships, it could also have a darker side, denying people freedom or even to exert a new type of “control” over each other.
Significantly, it finds that although mobile phones enable people keep in touch with a wide group of friends, for most people the majority of calls and text messages are exchanged with narrow circle of only four to six people.
“The concept of extending our social ties via mobile devices can both create intimate space and encroach on it,” wrote Prof Richard Ling, an IT expert at Copenhagen University.
“If one seeks to be alone, the mobile phone on display can be a powerful tool to impede contact with others, for example in a bar.
“Actual as opposed to staged continuous contact with others, however, ultimately threatens the most important part of intimacy, namely being alone with one’s thoughts and one’s own inner resources.
“Besides threatening our most private time, phone calls may also intrude the intimate space we share with someone else.
“As today one usually knows who is calling due to screen displays, not picking up the phone when it rings sends a message to the caller.
“Consequently, one has to consider whether to pick up the phone or not carefully. This is why we feel obliged to at least check who is calling even if this means breaking the intimate space shared with someone else at that time.”
He added: “This link between device and person has obviously altered our conversations.
“The information about who is on the phone is replaced by where the person we are calling is: ‘I’m on the bus’ or ‘I’m in bed’ have become important pieces of information at the start of a conversation as they quickly negotiate the level of intimacy appropriate for the following conversation given the surroundings of the persons involved.
“As a result, the mobile phone becomes a part of you.”
: The study, which is being published on Friday, was supported by Vodafone.