Friend or Foe? 1
Friend or Foe?
Is the mobile phone influencing communication positively or negatively?
International University in Germany
Writing and Research Methods
August 3, 2007
Friend or Foe? 2
Table of Contents
Abstract _____________________________________________________________________ 3
Evolution: from Fixed Lines to Mobile Telephones ___________________________________ 4
Particularities of the Mobile Phone _______________________________________________ 5
Phone Calls in Social Circumstances ______________________________________________ 6
The Effects of SMS _______________________________________________________ 7
The Effects of Mobile Technologies _______________________________________________ 8
Conclusions __________________________________________________________________ 9
References __________________________________________________________________ 10
Friend or Foe? 3
The topic of mobile communication is a highly debatable as the number of mobile users
increases. The mobile is becoming an integrated part of our daily lives. Since it is always by our
side, ready to be used, we are constantly connected to a network of friends and family,
colleagues or other business contacts. How and when we use our mobiles affects how we
communicate not only with the persons we seek contact with, but also those situated in our
proximity. It is important to understand the changes that lead to the adoption of mobile phones
and the consequences of the proliferation of this device in order to fully grasp the consequences
it has had on the traditional communication model.
Who uses mobiles and for what purposes? Has the primary role of the mobile phone of
facilitating communication, changed with time? Do we use our phones to hide from the world?
Are mobile calls becoming a substitute for face-to-face interaction? These are the questions that
will be tackled in this paper in the attempt to solve the dilemma of whether our mobiles have
transformed themselves from mere tools to enemies of our personal and professional lives.
Friend or Foe? 4
Friend or Foe?
Is the mobile phone influencing communication positively or negatively?
Since the Ancient Greeks, people have been dreaming about a unifying tool that would
allow people to communicate regardless of the distance separating them. This only hypothetical
tool at the time was called ‘a telephone’. (Lasen, 2002, p.2)
Since its invention, the telephone has been seen as a medium designed to diminish
distances and bring people closer together. But is this really the purpose of the mobile phone
today? Have we been transformed in emotionless people who hide behind our phones?
The introduction of the mobile phone has revolutionized the way we communicate;
differences in how the mobile phone is perceived and used can be noticed from individual or
social levels. For some, the telephone is a means of enhancing communication with
acquaintances, friends and families. Others see in it a means of forming new acquaintances, of
enhancing their social circle. There are even cases where people no longer feel the need for face-
Mobile phones can bring friends together, but it can also separate us from our friends or
families by providing more interesting quasi virtual lives. In such circumstances we must ask
ourselves what the impact of the telephone on our lives is: Are we using telephones to enhance
communication or to deter from it?
Evolution: from Fixed Lines to Mobile Telephones
The first telephones had fixed locations. They were usually situated in reclusive areas,
away from intrusions or disturbances. Talking on the phone was seen as a singular activity that
required concentration and a peaceful quiet environment. This was even the case when telephone
calls were made from phone booths which were designed so that privacy was ensured. (Bergvik,
2004, p.5) Restrictions also extended to the users targeted by the phone companies. Telephones
were seen simply as business tools. Their purpose was not to propagate small talk, which is why
they were seen as unsuitable for both women and teenagers. (Lasen, 2002, p.20)
Friend or Foe? 5
The cell phone changed all that. Phone calls are no longer restricted to a few designated
spaces. “Today, we see people use cell phones in all kinds of situations, from the most private
situations such as in bed and in the bathroom, to public places such as in the streets, on the bus,
in shops, restaurants, public theaters, offices, at work as well as leisure, alone as well as together
with others.” (Bergvik, 2004, p.5) Also, women and teenagers have become the most targeted
potential buyers of cell phones. Advertisements are now directly addressed to them, offers
catering to their needs and demands are proliferating.
Particularities of the Mobile Phone
In 2001, 62% of the American adults owned a telephone; it is safe to suppose that this
number has been increasing, especially since now cell phone companies target younger and
younger buyers, such as teenagers and sometimes even children. (Bergvik, 2004, p.5)
People nowadays have become addicted to their mobile phone: they carry it around
everywhere. The telephone is rarely shut down, as it is on stand-by, waiting to be used at all
times. (Jarvenpaa & Lang, 2005, p.7) Devices designed for private conversations, mobile phones
enable their users to create a personal virtual network that is available at all times. (Jarvenpaa &
Lang, 2005, p.17). Mobile phones have simply produced circumstances of closeness as well as
distance, by destroying the idea of proximity, by replacing direct face-to-face communication
with mediated communication.
The mobile has made some activities such as meetings obsolete, as now most
conversations are mediated either by a phone or a computer. This is true for enterprises where
technologies offering the possibility of mediated conferences are increasing, as well as for our
private lives. SMS and computers now offer the appropriate communication lines for most
teenagers. This is why contact between teenagers has diminished significantly. (Jarvenpaa &
Lang, 2005, p.17)
Friend or Foe? 6
Phone Calls in Social Circumstances
There is something about the ring of a phone call that makes most people unable to
answer their plea, regardless of the task the receiver was undertaking before the ring: “the need
or desire to answer a call often outweighs the importance of maintaining the flow of a face-to-
face conversation.” (Plant, 2002, p.30)
Sometimes the mobile does not even need to ring for it to demand our full attention.
Simply the knowledge that it might do so is distracting enough for some. The situation is
extremely intruding especially for couples, where sometimes the cell phone acts as a third party
participating at dates at all times, intruding in the private life of the couple. (Plant, 2002, p.30)
This is alarming, as face-to-face conversation is losing importance to phone calls. In
doing so, the relationship with the person present when the phone rings is harmed. Although
some groups tolerate such interruptions, there are some circumstances where answering a mobile
phone is unacceptable. (Plant, 2002, p.36) Nevertheless, few people choose to abandon their
phones even in formal cases where cell phones are believed to be taboo devices, such as church
visits or important meetings. Even when clearly asked to turn off their cell phones, few do so.
Instead they choose a less disturbing ringtone volume as they see the action as inconceivable.
“Some mobile users tend to make a virtue of the lack of privacy, enjoying and exploiting
the presence of third parties as a unique opportunity to put something of themselves on display
by stage-phoning.” (Plant, 2002, p.49) This can in turn explain the increased number of
conversations in public places, such as transportation means or gathering spots such as cafes or
While some people choose to answer any call they receive, ranking the phone call as
more important than the situation at hand, others choose to isolate themselves from their current
situation. Mobiles can be used to distance one from unnecessary conversations. Some people
regard their own privacy as more important and do not prioritize their mobile phones. These
people are called ‘hedgehogs’ in Plant’s study; they are the opposite of ‘foxes’ who constantly
need their phones and tend to answer all calls, regardless of their importance. (2002, p.62)
Friend or Foe? 7
Although sometimes mobiles can lead to isolation, sometimes the lack of the mobile can
be even more isolating, especially for regular users, who cannot perceive their lives without that
feeling of being connected. (Plant, 2002, p.63)
The notoriety that took e-mails 20 years to reach was accomplished by the SMS
technology in a matter of years. (Williamson, 2002, p. 18) Indeed, telephones have been
successful in making us communicate more, both in verbally and written. They are changing the
way we communicate, contributing to the modernization of our society, especially by promoting
text messaging. In UK, more than 3.5 billion text messages were sent in July, 2006 alone. The
short 160 character texts make communication more immediate, liberate it from space
constraints, as well as individualize it. This is one of the reasons young people prefer texting to
phone calls. (Croft, 2006, p.43)
36% of all written communication for women and 23% for men constitute the text
messages they send from their phone. As phones start introducing more text functions such as e-
mail support and hi-tech multimedia messages, we can safely assume that these ratios will
increase. Texting has become almost a lifestyle. People now use it from chatting with friends to
conducting business. It allows for easy, intimate communication. (Croft, 2006, p.43)
The Effects of SMS
SMS is generally known to unite people all over the world. A common language
developed by SMS users in an attempt to abbreviate messages and save message space has now
become acknowledged as a universal language. (Williamson, 2002, p. 18) Although there has
been a lot of debate on whether the effects of this new language are beneficial or not, it is certain
that at least for some, the SMS function of their phone has become even more important than the
phone’s initial purpose, that of making phone calls. According to Reid & Reid, approximately
90% of teenagers now prefer texting to talking. (Reid & Reid, 2004, p.1)
One reason behind the popularity of texting is the ability to send messages without the
need to vociferate thoughts, or feelings. (Plant, 2002, p. 56) Space restrictions make messages
Friend or Foe? 8
briefer than phone calls. This in turn translates in the need to express more with less words or
characters. As a consequence people tend to be more honest about their intentions. Formalities
are eliminated, which makes conversations more personal. This is why so many teenagers prefer
texting when they want to flirt or simply converse with their friends. Moreover, SMS can help
the sender hide his or her insecurities. (Plant, 2002, p.56-57)Those who prefer texting to talking
often believe that SMS has helped them create a greater social network. Texting was especially
preferred by introverted persons, who lack social skills; it allows them to express the real person
inside them, and establish stronger relationships with the outside world. (Reid & Reid, 2004, p.
Some prefer these unrevealing form of sending messages and simply choose to substitute
others forms of communication with it. This is the case with Japanese teenagers that choose
virtual friends over real ones. They find it easier to be themselves while shielded by their phones.
This way they can create a different personality for every person they come into contact. “One
Japanese student expressed concerns that younger keitai users are becoming ‘less capable of
direct, social communications. They rely on technology to converse. They are often intelligent
with collecting information but not with utilizing it, and I am often surprised by their awkward
emotional responses.’” (Plant, 2002, p.57)
The Effects of Mobile Technologies
People tend to use their mobiles as a shield from the outside. With the help of mobiles,
people have made it easier to hide ones feelings or intents, plans as well as whereabouts. (Plant,
2002, p.55) The potential for lying also results in increased suspicions. As a result it is no longer
uncommon especially for couples to check each others messages, sometimes without the
On the other hand, most users still believe that mobiles help them maintain and handle
relationships. It is generally known that we travel more today, that families are more and more
separated. This is the reason why the mobile is so useful in maintaining strong relationships with
ones family even when distances are great. Communication is what bonds us together. (Plant,
Friend or Foe? 9
Although parents usually use the phone to keep their children under surveillance and
control their whereabouts, many are concerned about who their children talk to, as they cannot
monitor their mobiles at all times. Having friends that parents disapprove of is easier now.
Although this does bring about advantages, the drawbacks are also known. A major concern for
parents is the accessibility of their children to strangers. (Plant, 2002, p.58)
Similar to computers, mobile users can now create virtual communities, as networking
ones social life becomes increasingly faster and easier. It is even possible to assume that most
regular users have their own social life stored in the contact list of their mobile. And accessing
this network is easier than ever. (Plant, 2002, p.61)
Regardless of how or why they are used, one thing is certain: the way we communicate
has changed significantly. For some the mobile phone is seen as an intrusive device, threatening
their personal and social lives. Such persons seek to limit mobile conversations, preferring real
time face-to-face conversations, instead of mediated talks.
For persons with hectic lifestyles, who have little or no time at all for social gatherings,
mobile phones provide the ideal means of keeping in touch with friends and family members
while on the move. Moreover, mobiles can help otherwise socially shy persons develop
relationships and increase their social network, acting as an enhancement tool for networking.
Although some worries do arise regarding the excessive use of mobile technology, the
main purpose has remained the same: to facilitate and proliferate communication. As one
interviewee for Plant’s study said, the mobile makes it cooler to communicate. (Plant, 2002,
Friend or Foe? 10
Bergvik, S. (2004). Disturbing cell phone behavior – a psychological perspective. Implications
for mobile technology tourism. Kjeller: Telenor R&D. Report 29/2004. Retrieved online
July 27, 2007 from the World Wide Web:
Croft, M. (2006). CU L8R? Marketing Week, September, 2006, 43-45. Retrieved July 27, 2007
from EBSCO Database.
Jarvenpaa, S. L., & Lang, K. R. (2005). Managing the paradoxes of mobile technology.
Information Systems Management, 22(4), 7-23. Retrieved July 27, 2007 from the World
Wide Web: http://www.ism-journal.com/ITToday/mobile.pdf
Lasen, A. (2002). The Social Shaping of Fixed and Mobile Networks: A Historical Comparison.
Surrey Vodafone Scholar. Digital World Research Centre, University of Surrey, 2002.
Retrieved July 27, 2007 from the World Wide Web:
Plant, S. (2000) On the Mobile: the effects of mobile telephones on social and individual life.
Retrieved July 27, 2007 from the World Wide Web:
Reid, D. J. & Reid F. J. M. (2004). Insights into the Social and Psychological Effects of SMS
Text Messaging. Retrieved July 27, 2007 from the World Wide Web:
Williamson, J. (2002). SMS: An unlikely hit. Global Telephony, March 2002, 16-22.