When the cell phone first hit the market in 1973, it ushered in a new chapter in telecommunications which made contacts with others more convenient, faster and cheaper, especially in international call charges. I can recall vividly that before its advent, a person-to-person call from my native Singapore to San Francisco would cost more than USD $10 for a mere three minutes’ chat, based on the much higher US exchange rate then prevailing.
The first hand-held cell phone was then a bulky device weighing more than 1.2 kg, and made a longish conversation a rather tiring exercise. Various subsequent advancements and innovations of the cell phone made it much lighter and smaller and therefore made it easier to put it in one’s own pocket or hand bag, rather than carrying it in your hand wherever you go. It also has more functions than the earlier versions with the passing of time. It has especially benefitted people in the less affluent Third-World countries without residential lines by simply relying on their cell phones for immediate contact with others, without having to wait an undue length of time required to install a residential line.
Despite the advantage of owning a cell phone, unfortunately, the indiscriminate and selfish usage of it in many countries, including mine, has caused annoyance to others and turned it into an anti-social instrument in the hands of such users. For example, despite polite announcements in many public places to switch it off or to turn it to silent mode in order not to disturb others, such reasonable requests would often be ignored. Take Singapore as a typical case in point. Even in places of worship, concert and lecture halls, meetings, public transportations and in crowded places, loud telephone conversations can be heard despite displeasure shown by others affected. I once sat next to a chatty middle age well-dressed man in a subway train for some 30 minutes, and when I reached my journey’s end I had come to know a great deal of his domestic woes! On another occasion, a solo violin recital came to an abrupt stop and the musician had to request the culprit, whose phone was ringing, to leave the concert hall so that the recital could continue undisturbed!
Technological breakthroughs in 1992 resulted in the launching of smart phone and numerous eager users would queue up outside the suppliers’ stores overnight in order to be among the first to own this clever and novel gadget, much to the envy of others who had to wait their turns pending the arrivals of fresh stocks. Some would also part with their additional sets at much inflated “black market” prices in order to make their long vigil a worthwhile one. The smart phone could perform many intelligent and complex tasks with ease and made it a “must have” toy for its many ardent users. Its latest technological advancements are truly amazing and their sales worldwide have increased by leaps and bounds. There are now so many different brands competing against each other and this has resulted in fierce competitions and resultant price reductions (excepting that of Apple) and the growing number of users are spoiled for choice. In the midst of such a fiercely competitive market scene, some brands are now particularly sought after and have become a visible status symbol for their owners. it is therefore common knowledge that the latest and, for the time being, most technologically innovative smart phones introduced by Apple, Samsung, Huawei, Lenovo and some other brands are in a class by themselves compared with others because of their numerous functions, attractive designs, technological superiority and pricing. To maintain or increase their market share, the leading brands must keep on innovating their products or be overtaken by other brands. With smart phones, the cell phones have not many users left as manufacturers have switched over almost entirely to smart phone productions. Only those who are not smart phone savvy and find their cell phones more than adequate for their needs will continue to rely on them.
Living in the eras of email, Internet and smart phone have inevitably transformed the way we live, communicate, do business and our lifestyle in more ways than one. From this stand point, these ingenious and beneficial inventions are truly a blessing to mankind. On the other hand, as more and more people, especially the younger generation, have become so addicted to their smart phones which they can so conveniently access and transmit messages and images all over the world instantly and with such ease to play games, watch sports events or movies on it at anytime they choose to do so that they can no longer live without it. Viewed from this light, the smart phone is fast becoming a real social menace and poses potential dangers not only to their users but also to others around them.
According to Internet sources, news reports and my own personal knowledge, this growing social problem of smart phone addiction would appear to be a worldwide phenomenon, affecting not only the older generation but more so the younger ones of both sexes. I have personally witnessed its widespread impact in the US, Europe, China, South Korea, Japan and daily in my own country. Additive users there would habitually and instinctively stare at their smart phones while crossing the traffic light junctions, walking on pavements, driving, in the subway trains, buses, restaurants, movie houses, lecture halls, in crowded shopping malls, boarding or alighting public transports or getting into or leaving a lift and, believe it or not, in rare instances even when bathing or engaging in sex! They were completely oblivious of anyone or anything happening around them.
With a world population exceeding 7 billion people, Asia leads the pack with a smart phone penetration of more than 2.5 billion users. Topping the list are China, India, Indonesia, Japan and South Korea. The number of smart phone users are also rapidly growing in the US, EU countries and even in Russia. Another worrying trend is that more and more young school children have been infected by this device which adversely affects their studies and personal well-being. It has also led to many accidents and mental conditions, some serious or even fatal and others rather amusing to the bystanders, in everyday life in different parts of the world. A few vivid examples may suffice to warn its compulsive users of the potential hazards it poses not only to themselves but to others of this otherwise very useful and ingenious invention.
In South Korea, apart from accidents caused by smart phone addiction especially by the younger set , quite a significant percentage of them were suffering from nomophobia (no mobile phone phobia) and they had to be admitted to rehabilitation centres to cure them of this condition. This addiction has now spread to Japan too, with the rate of young children and teenagers requiring rehab treatments fast rising. In Singapore, I was twice almost knocked down by two teenagers, once on a busy street and another time in a shopping mall, because they were too engrossed in looking at their smart phones. To my great surprise, they gave me a hostile stare and walked away without uttering a word of apology! I know of another incident where an air passenger missed his Singapore flight at the Changi Airport because he did not hear the repeated final calls to board the plane and was left behind. In China, a young woman was tragically crushed to death by the closing lift door because she was looking at her mobile phone when entering it in a hurry. In another Chinese city, a woman had to be rescued by fire fighters after falling into a drain while looking at her phone. In a major American city, a young woman with designer attire and hand bag accidentally stepped into a public fountain pool while playing a game on her smart phone, much to the amusement of the bystanders. In another incident, an American man was so focused on using his phone that he was totally unaware of a murder being committed close to him despite the commotion. In Russia, a high percentage of traffic accidents happened on the roads involving drivers using their mobile phones while driving or under the influence of drink. Many died arising out of these accidents.
According to the BBC News Service, there are warning signs to indicate that one might be smart phone addicted. According to experts, the following might point to that direction. I quote:
- Constantly checking your phone for no reason
- Feeling anxious and restless at the thought of being without your phone
- Avoiding social interaction in favour of spending time on your phone
- Waking up in the middle of the night to check your smart phone
- A decline in academic or work performance as a result of prolonged phone activity
- Easily distracted by emails or smart apps
More governments, including Singapore, South Korea and US, have already enacted more stringent laws and regulations forbidding use of mobile devices while driving. In my view, parental advice and some form of control are vital to help forewarn and discipline their children of the dire consequences of excessive and inappropriate smart phone usage, to be augmented by similar guidance by teachers and the country’s educational authorities. On our part, my wife and I make it a point to impress upon our own grandchildren of the pitfalls of smart phone addiction, in addition to the warning given by their own parents.
Lam Pin Foo