Cell Phones Fuel Risky Behavior

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College students packing cell phones feel safer than those without and are more likely to take risky walks at night, a new study finds.

The research reveals that carrying a cell phone can amp up risk-taking, particularly among women.

"Students seem to feel less vulnerable when they carry a cell phone, although there's not evidence that they really are," said study researcher Jack Nasar, a professor of city and regional planning at Ohio State University. "If anything, they are probably less safe because they are paying less attention to their surroundings."

Nasar, Peter Hecht of Temple University in Philadelphia and Richard Wener of Brooklyn Polytechnic University in New York conducted two surveys, each of about 300 male and female college students in 2001 and 2002. The researchers interviewed the students, whose average age was under 24 years old, via telephone and online surveys.

The results were announced today.

While nearly 62 percent of students reported carrying a cell phone in 2001, more than 85 percent said they were carriers in 2002. That percentage has likely risen. As of December 2007, nearly 90 percent of Americans age 18 to 29 years old reported owning a cell phone, with 32 percent of these young adults indicating they "couldn't live without" their mobile, according to the Pew Internet & American Life Survey.

The 2000 survey by Nasar revealed most mobile-phone users felt somewhat or a lot safer with cell phones when walking alone at night. Women reported feeling a greater boost in safety when holding a cell phone compared with males. The second survey showed 42 percent of women reported that with a cell phone they had walked someplace after dark where they wouldn't normally go, while just 28 percent of men reported such late-night treks.

"Especially for women, cell phones offer a sense of security that may make them more willing to put themselves in risky situations," Nasar said.

In a separate study, Nasar and his colleagues found that 48 percent of cell-phone users crossed a busy road in front of approaching cars, compared with only 25 percent of those not using phones. "We know that cell phones pose a hazard for people when they're driving, but pedestrians may also be at risk if they are not careful," Nasar said.

Nasar said the team's results, detailed in the December 2007 issue of the International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, suggest colleges should update safety lectures commonly given to incoming freshmen.

"Students need to be aware of their surroundings when they're out using their cell phone," Nasar said. "In some cases, walking with a cell phone might make them vulnerable, either to crime or to an accident."

Jeanna Bryner
Live Science Editor-in-Chief

Jeanna served as editor-in-chief of Live Science. Previously, she was an assistant editor at Scholastic's Science World magazine. Jeanna has an English degree from Salisbury University, a master's degree in biogeochemistry and environmental sciences from the University of Maryland, and a graduate science journalism degree from New York University. She has worked as a biologist in Florida, where she monitored wetlands and did field surveys for endangered species. She also received an ocean sciences journalism fellowship from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.