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Tuesday, 4 July, 2000, 17:00 GMT 18:00 UK
Engaged to your mobile

More than half of all Britons now own a mobile phone. But as the boom continues, some people should be hanging up, not hanging on. By BBC News Online's Jonathan Duffy.

Minority rights campaigners have a new class of oppressed citizen to focus on - the non-mobile phone user.

Figures released this week suggest mobile phone ownership in the UK has broken through the 50% barrier. Those who are still holding out against the onslaught are now the few, not the many.

Children on mobiles
Children may be using mobiles for two hours a day

Although growth has slowed, millions more handsets will be sold over the coming years.

But while mobiles have delivered a revolution in individual freedom, some users just don't know when to hang up.

Anyone who regularly travels by train, drinks in a pub or even goes to the cinema will recognise the mobile phone "addict".

They cling to their handset like a baby to his mother's hand, constantly check for new messages and converse in clear, pointed tones at full volume.

They also have an urge to voice the most trivial of facts. "I'm just getting on the train ... I'm on the train ... I'm about to get off the train."

Mobile facts, 1 Oct to 31 Dec 1999
Britons made 6.9bn minutes of mobile
That's approx 288.2 minutes per handset
Which translates as 19.2 hours a year
Original source: Oftel

In the eyes of scientists, addiction is too strong a word. But Andrina McCormack, a communications psychologist from Dundee, recognises a worrying level of dependency among some users.

"[The mobile phone] is more like a comfort blanket. It's important for people to feel that they are constantly in touch. There's a need to needed," she says.

"Getting a call is a boost because it makes you feel good to be wanted."

Dr Mark Griffiths, a specialist in behavioural and technological addiction, says mobiles provide "self worth and self esteem" to users.

Not a toy

Research into reliance on mobile phones is thin on the ground, perhaps, suggests Ms McCormack, because the operators would be reluctant to fund such a study.

But last year, the Sunday Times claimed to have seen a confidential report which identified serious dependency among children.

John Aldridge on phone
Tranmere Rovers boss John Aldridge takes a call during a news conference

The report, by "one big service provider", is said to have found children and teenagers were spending up to two hours a day on mobile phones, running up bills of 500 per year.

Pre-paid mobiles were originally introduced by operators to help combat crippling phone bills.

But the fact these phones can be bought off the shelf, and so don't require a contract, makes them more accessible to children. Pre-paid phones also have high call charges.

Children are among the keenest mobile users - by 2002 ownership levels are expected to rise to 70% among under-18s.

While mobile operators may be reluctant to admit extreme dependency among customers, they do at least see the downside of the anytime, anyplace, anywhere mobile culture.

Off button

Last year BT Cellnet launched a campaign to encourage users to switch off their phones more. The Switch It campaign promoted the "sensible, considerate and responsible use of mobile phones".

Ericsson prototypes
Future phones: Prototypes from mobile-maker Ericsson

Dr Griffiths says he has not yet seen a mobile phone addict - "that would be someone who considers their phone to be the most important thing in their life".

But he has noticed some telltale signs of over dependency.

"We all know people who feel irritable or moody if they haven't got their mobile phone with them. It's like the Filofax phenomenon with Yuppies in the 80s - they feel naked without," he says.

Get the message

One trend that has boomed on the back of mobile mania is text messaging. The number of text messages being sent over mobile phones grew by more than 1,400% in the 12 months to February 2000.

But that pales in comparison to Japan, where the latest mobile craze, "i-mode", has become an "addiction" for millions of Japanese.

With its cheap and continuous wireless access to the net, i-mode allows users to quickly exchange 250-character messages. Teenagers keep their handsets on around the clock, and conduct rapid-fire test "conversations".

But Dr Griffiths entertains the idea of a backlash against mobile communication. Six months ago he gave up his mobile phone and is happier without.

"I didn't want to be in contact with people all the time. I had information overload and now I'm in control."

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See also:

04 Jul 00 | Business
Mobiles 'owned by 50% of UK'
29 Oct 99 | Business Basics
Mobile phones - a growth industry
30 May 00 | Business
Shifting Europe's mobile landscape
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