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Abby Francis -

Smartphone SOS
Do smartphones make the world a safer place?


Ever since mobile phones first became available to the average consumer, the ability to make calls from anywhere in the world has made it endlessly easier to stay in touch.

But more importantly, they've completely changed the way we deal with emergencies. From something as simple as calling a friend when you're lost, roadside assistance when there's no phone in sight, or the police at any time of the day or night, to more modern developments such as Facebook check-ins, emergency contacts and panic button apps, phones make it easier to stay safe.

The apps and features keeping us safe

There are so many ways we can use our smartphones to either help us stay safe or better handle a crisis. Some are simple, in-built features that have the potential to be used effectively, while others have been developed as a particular response to certain dangers.

Smartphone SOS - Phone Calls and Texts

Phone calls and texts

The very fact that we have a phone on us at all times is often enough in an emergency. Calling or discreetly texting the emergency services, friends or family from wherever you are is something we now take for granted – until we find ourselves without a phone for once.

Smartphone SOS - ICE Contacts

ICE contacts

Most smartphones now have an in case of emergency (ICE) contact that can be called without unlocking the screen. This means you can make a call when you're in trouble very easily – perhaps without arousing suspicion – but its main use is for emergency services to get in touch with your loved ones without knowing your PIN.

Smartphone SOS - Map Apps

Map apps

It's easy to stumble into trouble when we get lost, but when you've got a smartphone you've always got a map – with added GPS that shows you exactly where you are. Useful for helping you find your way in an unfamiliar place, plotting routes, and finding landmarks or services.

Smartphone SOS - GPS Trackers

GPS trackers

There are so many GPS tracking apps out there, and they all work in a similar way – they'll track where a phone is, and display it on a map. It's a very simple way for parents to keep an eye on children or for partners to know the whereabouts of one another. It's also useful for tracking down a stolen or lost phone, too. Oh, and there's even one designed to help keep tabs on your drunk mates.

Smartphone SOS - Medical Alerts

Medical alerts

Medical alert apps act in the same way as a medical alert bracelet or card might – it stores any essential health information on your phone in a similar way to your ICE contact, so it can be viewed easily – Medical Emergency Help is a simple example of this. For something a little different, there's GoodSAM, which helps people call for help as well as helping people with medical training to respond to emergencies.

Smartphone SOS - Panic Buttons

Panic buttons

There are so many panic button apps out there too, and they all work in similar ways – a very easy-to-use app that lets you send out alerts to your contacts or the emergency services. Some will require you to open the app, others will map the alarm to another part of your phone, such as holding the power button or entering a PIN.

Smartphone SOS - Companion


Combining panic buttons and GPS trackers with a few features of its own, the Companion app lets your contacts know where you are, allowing them to meet you and walk you home. The app sends out a link to as many people in your phonebook as you like, which directs to a map that shows where you are, and how far from your destination you are.

If you go off track, speed up, fall over, or even yank out your headphones, the app asks if you're ok. If you don't confirm, the app turns into a personal alarm, helping you call the police while sending out alerts to your contacts. There's also an 'I am nervous' button, for when you're not in immediate danger, but sense trouble. It's been popular for parents and people with elderly relatives, but was by and large developed as a response to widespread campus sexual assault in US universities.

Smartphone SOS - Domestic Violence

Domestic violence apps

Thousands of men and women face domestic violence at some point in their lives, and the impacts are more than just physical. Cutting someone off from contacting friends, family and resources or monitoring phone use is also abusive behaviour, and a number of apps have been developed to help victims of domestic violence access help without arousing suspicion from their abuser.

The ASPIRE News App is particularly clever – it looks just like a regular news app, but has hidden features that give users discreet access to hotlines and resources, and an ability to alert trusted contacts when you're in danger. It's no replacement for calling the police, but it provides a lifeline for many who need it.

Smartphone SOS - Surveillance

Surveillance apps

GPS trackers might feel a bit Big Brothery, but there are ways to turn the tables. Apps like Presence allow you to turn an old phone into a security camera for your home that you can monitor from any other phone or PC.

There are also apps like Secret Video Recorder, which we accept can be used for the wrong reasons in the wrong hands, but can also be used to record altercations without an assailant's knowledge.

The American Civil Liberties Union has even created localised apps for recording police conduct that connect directly to state-level services.

Smartphone SOS - Facebook Safety Check

Facebook Safety Check

Originally designed for earthquakes, Facebook's Safety Check function allows you to tap one button that sends out a notification saying "I'm safe", keeping things simple in the aftermath of a disaster. It's been used around a dozen times so far, for emergencies such as natural disasters and terrorist attacks, and has proved useful in reducing pressure on phone networks – as well as sparing friends and family from worry.

With so many app developers out there trying to solve problems in creative ways, there will be many more apps available both now and in the future. Even simple tools, like apps that use your camera flash as a torch, could be useful in a crisis.

Of course, you could always go all out with something like The Defender, which combines features of many of the apps above and also adds an extra little device that links up to your phone and contains a camera, bright flash and pepper spray so you can stun, incapacitate and photograph all in one go. At time of writing, you can pre-order one for less than £150.

Read about the link between smartphones and crime

Public perceptions and use

There have been a number of studies into the way people use phones, and whether they do indeed make us safer, but results have been inconclusive.

One 2010 investigation, carried out by the Pew Research Centre, for example, found that 91% of people would say that they feel safer because they can use their phone to get help.

But feeling safer and actually being safer are very different things. Could phones just provide the illusion of safety?

In fact, feeling safer could mean you're more likely to take risks – a study from 2000 found that, if they had their mobile phones to hand, 42% of women and 28% of men would walk somewhere at night where they wouldn't usually go.

However, a follow-up study found that distraction could be the biggest risk, with 48% of people saying they would cross a road recklessly while using their phone.

But these studies were carried out in relatively early days for the smartphone, and long before many safety apps and features would be developed (or even before smartphones actually came into existence).

To get a better idea of where we are now, with smartphones far more accessible than they were six years ago, and with more apps than ever, we need some fresh research – so we conducted a survey of 1,000 people across the UK for some more up-to-date numbers.

We found that a surprisingly low number of people are aware of what their phone can do, beyond the normal calls and texts – and that even less people actually use them. When asked about some of the more common safety features, 74% of people were aware of them, but only 50% of people actually had any set up. GPS trackers were the best known, with 48% of people knowing they existed, while 43% had heard of emergency contacts – but only 25% of people had gone on to set either one up.

Safety App Usage

Only 27% of the people we surveyed had ever used their smartphone to help them out while they were in danger, but two-thirds (67%) said they feel more vulnerable when they don't have their mobile phone with them, suggesting that even if we don't use our phones to their full potential, they still provide us with a much-needed feeling of security.

  • Percentage Using
  • Percentage Aware

(Source: Survey of 1,006 UK adults conducted by TLF)

Age differences

Perhaps unsurprisingly, young people (18-24) are generally more likely to be aware and use of phone safety features, but usage for some apps, particularly GPS trackers, was actually much higher among those aged 25-44 – those more likely to have children and partners they want to ensure are safe.

Safety App Usage Chart

The gender balance

We also found out that men were more likely to both be aware of safety features, and to have them installed, than women – which was surprising, given that apps like Companion are largely being marketed towards women.

Awareness by Gender

  • Male
  • Female

Usage by Gender

  • Male
  • Female

More needs to be done to educate people about the safety benefits of smartphones and the potential pitfalls related to them. This is particularly true regarding women and people over the age of 45 – two groups most likely to benefit from smartphone security features. These statistics are promising, however. A lot of these features are still relatively new, and the general public – outside of those with a big interest in tech and smartphones – will naturally take a while to catch onto them.

Read about the link between smartphones and crime