Should cellphone use in certain public spaces be banned?

Cellphones have become dear to many people. Recent surveys show that most people feel cellphones are “an essential part” of daily life, and a growing number even admit they have developed a “personal relationship” with this chunk of metal and glass, their phone…

Some of us are old enough to remember when people were allowed to smoke in movie theaters, or airplanes, but probably everyone can remember when smoking was legal and free inside bars or public buildings.

But today, second smoke is considered a public health hazard, and, what was considered normal even two years ago might be considered shocking now  in many cities—seeing people smoking in an enclosed restaurant.

In some countries, people are debating whether or not “second-hand” cellphone conversations are also a public health hazard, and want them banned from some public spaces just like cigarette smoking.

Regarding the cellphone user himself, clearly cellphone use can be hazardous….a person driving a car while talking on the cellphone has a level of impairment about the same as a drunk driver, yet we all probably see people driving and using their phone. Even people walking and distracted with a cellphone suffer more accidents when they cross a street.

We could go on about real, or potential—for example, radiation—hazards to the user himself, but today, let’s look at research demonstrating a hazard for everyone else….the people exposed to “second-hand” cellphone conversations.

Published online March 13 in the journal Plos One, psychologists at the University of San Diego (USA) took 164 college students and put them basically into one of two situations. All the students were told to complete a list of word puzzles, but during that task, some of the students were exposed (in the background), to either seven minutes of a regular two-sided dialogue, or seven minutes of one person talking on a cellphone.

The results showed the students exposed to the one-sided (cellphone) conversation reported being much more distracted and annoyed than the students who heard the two-sided conversation. And when they tested the students afterwards about how much they remembered of the conversation (either the two sided or the “halflogue”), they found the student hearing the cellphone conversation recalled much more of the words used.

Clearly, the individuals hearing the one-sided conversation focused more on that distraction than the students listening to a “normal” two-way dialogue. Some psychologists believe this happens because our brains are forced to work harder when we listen to a one-sided conversation. Our brain is constantly working to fill in the gaps.

Further, each time we hear the cellphone user, it is  “new” information for us…there is no good way to place it in context. Our brains seem to be wired to pay more attention to unpredictable pieces of speech (perhaps because unconsciously we are alert for any risks?).

So perhaps it does make sense to debate cellphone usage in public places….as it probably causes bystanders unwanted distraction and stress. What about in a doctor’s waiting room, when the patient might want to focus on their own issues? Is it fair to allow others in the waiting room disturb their thinking and preparation?

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