Mobile phone users:
A small-scale observational study

Poppy Helm

“Mr Watson, come here, I want you” were the famous first words transmitted by Alexander Graham Bell to his assistant three days after patenting the ‘telephone’ on March 7th, 1876. Bell’s invention of the ‘telephone’ developed from improvements he made to the telegraph and although several inventors were, at that time, experimenting with ‘sending human speech by wire’, Bell was the first to patent his device. (www, Lucid Café, 4/11/02). Telephone communication has come a long way in the past hundred or so years, with developments in technology that Bell probably couldn’t even imagine. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, ‘more than half of all people in Britain’ (www, Guardian Unlimited, 5/10/00) own a mobile phone and not only use them to make voice calls but to send text messages (SMS), navigate the internet, and even play games.

To investigate the habits of mobile phone users, I devised three methods of studying them. The first was to send a questionnaire (via email) to a variety of contacts (see Appendix I), and the second was to go to a public place and write down my observations of the use of mobile phones. I also initiated conversations with people of varied ages and backgrounds about their mobiles phone habits and possible reasons behind them.

Communicating over the telephone, regardless of whether via voice or text, is a completely different experience to face-to-face interaction. Conversation between two people that can see each other is ‘rich in social cues’ (Rutter, 1987: 38), facial expressions, body language and eye contact all give non-verbal clues as to how to other person is receiving information, whereas interaction over the phone relies on a degree of trust. Edward Hall stated that 'Since it is impossible to tell from the ring who is on the other end of the line, or how urgent his business is, people feel compelled to answer the phone' (Hall in Chandler, Using the Telephone, 1995) and this is true of most ‘landline’ phones. However, when receiving a call on a mobile phone, the caller’s name and number (unless withheld by dialling ‘141’ before making the call) is displayed, meaning that the receiver can choose whether to take the call or ‘reject’ it by pressing cancel. Some of the people I interviewed admitted using excuses such as ‘My network reception cut out’ (Chris. 9/11/02) and ‘I ran out of credit’ (Mark. 9/11/02) to end or avoid an unwanted call. It may be argued that text messages require an even higher level of trust; messages can be ignored (‘I never received it’), replies can be delayed (‘I didn’t notice your message’) and it is easier to lie due to lack of environmental cues (such as the background noise of other people in a bar.). However, despite these apparent flaws when communicating via mobile phones, their popularity is ever increasing with ‘penetration of handheld devices’ in the UK expected to rise from 21 million (1999) to 45 million (2005) in just six years (www, Epaynews, 2002).

The questionnaire was sent to 48 respondents, 24 of each gender. 92% of respondents confirmed that they owned a mobile phone, information which is supported by the fact that in 2001, 68% of the UK population owned a mobile phone (www, EPS statistics, 2002). This is certain to have increased in the year since this study was conducted. However, it must be noted that the majority (75%) of the respondents to the questionnaire were in the 16-20 years age category and represent a younger generation that, having been brought up using computers, the internet, email etc., has more fully integrated modern technology (including mobile phones) into their everyday lives. Therefore, it is more accurate to say that the results gained represent of the ‘youth’ of today, rather than generalising to the entire population.

According to the results of the questionnaire, the ‘primary use’ of the respondent’s mobile phones was fairly evenly split between ‘phone calls’ (50%) and ‘text messages’ (42%). This confirms what I observed in the Student’s Union of Aberystwyth University – I saw approximately the same number of people sending text messages as making voice calls from their phone. 92% of respondents send text messages from their phone and in several situations, such as ‘flirting’, ‘keeping in touch with friends’ and ‘passing news on’ would choose to use this facility rather than voice calls. Text messages are considered more convenient because of the speed and ease with which they are sent. Modern phones have a ‘predicative text’ facility which has an inbuilt dictionary that ‘guesses’ the word being typed instead of needing to scroll through each letter in turn, and ‘template’ messages of commonly used phrases such as ‘Please call’ or ‘I am late. I will be there at…’ (Nokia 3330, SMS templates, 8/11/02). Text messages are also cheap at approximately 10p each (although this varies depending on the network provider) which is an important factor to the type of people interviewed as the majority of them were students living on a strict budget. Text messages are also considered a convenient way to keep in touch with friends by letting you know you are thinking about them without having to spend the time, money or effort having a full conversation. Text messages are ‘…discreet and personal; no one need know when you're sending or reading..’ (www, Guardian Unlimited, 2000) therefore they can be used in situations where voice calls could not, such as during lectures and in libraries or cinemas. According to the people interviewed, flirting by text message is ‘less embarrassing’ (Vickie, 02/11/02) because ‘you can say things you wouldn’t be brave enough to say to their face’ (Mark, 02/11/02) and messages can be stored to re-read later.

Despite the popularity of text messaging, half of all people surveyed claim that the primary use of their mobile phone is for ‘phone calls’, the majority of which are made to friends (41% of respondents chose this category as the one they called the most). ‘Voice calls’ were chosen over text messages as the preferred method of ‘breaking plans’ and ‘ending a relationship’, probably because these situations require more detailed explanation and discussion than is available in an 160 character text message. ‘Voice calls’ are also considered ‘better when you want to get hold of someone urgently’ (Chloe, 08/11/02) because a ‘real time’ conversation is initiated, rather than letting the person reply through text at their own convenience. Through the survey I found that those with a contract phone are more likely to make voice calls than those with a pre-pay phone, probably because they receive ‘free minutes’ as part of that contract.

To further my research, I spent an afternoon in the Student’s Union observing the behaviour of mobile phone users. Upon entering the room, I immediately noticed that approximately a quarter of the people there had their mobile phones sat in front of them on the table. Perhaps this was to ensure they heard any phone call or messages received while in a relatively noisy environment, but I also noticed that many of these phones were the latest, ‘trendiest’ models. This prompted me to think about one of my friends who upgrades his phone to the latest model approximately every six months and I realised that 70% of the people with their phones on the table were male. This suggests that although having a primary use as a communication device, mobile phones also make an important fashion statement about their owner- I once saw a teenage boy walking down the street talking loudly on his mobile phone when it began to ring, obviously ‘posing’ with his phone, rather than using it for communication. If books can be described as an ‘extension of the eye’ and the wheel as an ‘extension of the foot’ (Mcluhan, The medium is the massage: 31-37), mobile phones may well be described as an extension of the personality. Many mobile phones have changeable fascias as well as customisable ringtones and operator logos that can be downloaded from the internet or bought by calling a premium rate phone number and entering an identification code. I found that the majority of people I questioned had used these facilities to personalise their phone in some way, again suggesting importance of the ‘fashion’ aspect of mobile phones.

I have also noticed that during the relatively short history of mobile phones, the behaviour of their users is beginning to change. Many people, especially children, purchase or are given mobile phones as a security measure. By making their child permanently contactable, many parents feel more comfortable in allowing them go out on their own because in the event of an emergency, the child can ring them, or anyone else as necessary. This can also be true for adults- I take my mobile phone with me whenever I drive so I can contact someone in the event of the car breaking down or getting lost. Ironically, the very device that is supposed to provide security is beginning to have it’s own safety called into question. During the past five years there has been an increasing concern in the radiation given out by mobile phone masts and, perhaps more importantly, the phones themselves. It has been reported that there are ‘definite health effects of mobile phone radiation on human health ranging from blood pressure to brain tumours’ (www, Radiation scare from mobile phones). To try and avoid the apparently lethal effects of mobile phone radiation, many people have begun to use ‘hands-free’ devices that consist of a microphone and mouth piece connected to the phone by a wire long enough to allow the phone to sit on the table or in a pocket. Although this appears to be logical and safety conscious idea, from my observations, I have not seen many young people take advantage of it. The people I spoke to claimed it ‘looks daft’ because ‘you look like you’re talking to yourself’ (Charli, 10/11/02) and that hands-free devices ‘are for business-men and poseurs’ (Mark, 10/11/02). To the first generation of mobile phone users, these safety precautions aren’t important as they have not yet been able to see the effects of radiation from phones, it will be interesting to see if the next generation have the same views.

Through observation, differences between the ways in which males and females use their mobile phones became apparent. I noticed that when left on their own in a social situation (such as when waiting to meet someone, or while their friend is at the bar) many people play with their phone to alleviate their boredom or discomfort about being on their own. Although text messages ‘appeal to men as much as women’ (www, Guardian Unlimited, 2000), of the people I saw doing this and questioned about what they were doing, more females (75% of those questioned) were sending text messages than males (45%) who were also ‘messing with ringtones’ or ‘playing a game’. I also noticed that, of the phone calls I observed, those made or received by females tended to be longer and include more phatic language such as ‘how are you?’, ‘where are you?’, ‘what are you doing?’ whereas the calls made by males appeared to be quicker and more direct. One phone call I observed received by a male consisted of just two sentences: ‘Yeah, I’m in the union’ (pause) ‘Ok, see ya later mate’.

However, when analysing the results of both the questionnaire and interviews, certain flaws must be noted. The questionnaire was sent to people of a variety of ages and backgrounds but all of who had access to email. This immediately means that the respondent would be a certain type of person- namely one that has access to and an understanding of modern technology. Consequently, certain answers (to questions such as ‘do you own a mobile phone?’) may not provide a true representation of the general public. Similarly, the interviews all took place within the student union, so inevitably, the majority of the interviewees were university students within a certain age band, and so created a bias in the results gained.

It is apparent that mobile phones are becoming increasingly more integrated in society. The many forms we are required to complete at the doctor’s, dentist’s and such like are a good example of this, as a space for ‘mobile number’ begins to appear next to the one for our ‘telephone number’. On a slightly grander scale, it can be seen in the development of interactive television and radio that invites audiences to participate via text message. These seemingly small and gradual changes that we encounter everyday mark a revolution in technology of which mobile phones may only be the beginning.



November 2002