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Abby Francis - Mobiles.co.uk

Smartphone SOS
The link between mobile phones and crime

Introduction

Recently, it was Pokémon Go, of all things, that has really hit home how easy it is to lure phone users into a robbery. Alternatively, it's all too easy to wander out into traffic and get injured while glued to your devices.

Do mobiles do more harm than good? We've investigated whether you really are safer with a smartphone, and how you can best use your devices to protect yourself.

The mobile/crime correlation

A long-held internet favourite, Tyler Vigen's Spurious Correlations are the perfect explanation of why correlation doesn't always mean causality. If two wholly unrelated things experience a rise or fall in a similar way, that doesn't necessarily mean they're related.

But sensible correlations can hint at a cause. If mobile phones did make the world a safer place, with the majority of people feeling less vulnerable when they have a phone, surely we'd see this in the crime statistics?

Statistics show that mobile phone ownership in the UK leapt upwards in 2001. The industry was entering a serious boom period, with 3G launching in Japan for the first time, and affordable, functional phones arriving in stores in the UK – Nokia's classic 3310 among them.

Between 2000 and 2001, mobile ownership in the UK went from less than half of all households to nearly two thirds, and from then on it continued to grow.

Between 2001 and 2015, there was a 30% increase in mobile phone ownership in the UK, with numbers only dipping by more than one per cent in 2007.

2007 is interesting because it was the launch of the first iPhone, beginning the smartphone race and pushing up the costs of phones significantly – could that be why less people were buying them?

Things get even more interesting when we look at these numbers alongside corresponding annual crime statistics – you see a strong negative correlation, with a fall in crime in line with a rise in phone ownership.

Relationship between phone ownership and crimes reported

(Source: Gov.UK, Statista.)

It's important to note that these statistics predate the inclusion of cybercrime in the official statistics, which we'll discuss later, but in that same period of 2001 to 2015, there was a 36% decrease in crime rates. The biggest dip was, again in 2007 – when the iPhone launched, crime fell by 9%. Despite the fact that less people had them, could better internet access on their phone for the few that did mean they were better able to prevent or deter crime?

Is it just a coincidence?

When San Diego's crime rate hit a near-50 year low in 2011, Chief William Lansdowne determined that his city's safety was down to the mobile phone – or cell phone, as they call it in the US, of course:

"The community is very quick to respond to crime," he told a press conference. "It’s the cell phone that's made such a difference.

"Within seconds, you can get on a phone and a dispatcher has an officer going before you’ve even given your name… We do a lot of outreach to different groups on how to call, how to contact us."

It seems like common sense. If you've got a phone, you can call the police easier, or take a photo of an attacker or vehicle – things which create a higher risk for potential criminals.

You can also use map apps to avoid getting lost, ride share apps to call a taxi quicker, and so on – all things which reduce the opportunity for crime.

A University of Pennsylvania Law School study by Klick, MacDonald and Stratmann backs this up:

"An individual commits a crime if the expected benefits of the crime exceed the costs. The expected cost includes the likelihood the individual will be… identified, apprehended, prosecuted, convicted, and punished. The presence of mobile phones increases the likelihood of punishment along a number of different margins.
"The first step toward punishment involves reporting the crime. Mobile phones allow for quicker reporting of crimes and, in some cases, real time communication of details about the crime and the criminal."

Essentially, people are less likely to commit crimes if they think they'll be caught, and people are more likely to be caught if they're reported – so it's easy to see how mobiles can deter crime, rather than the whole connection being just a coincidence.

However, an increase in mobile phones does create opportunities for different kinds of crime. As mentioned, these statistics do predate the inclusion of cybercrime – when cybercrime was considered for the first time in 2015, there was a 107% leap in the rate of crime. With numbers more than doubling, could we argue that smartphones, which could increase possibilities for identity theft and fraud among other things, are doing more harm than good?

Read "Do smartphones make the world a safer place?"

Woman at Train Station Texting on Mobile Phone

The risks – and how to avoid them

We have already touched upon a couple of ways that phones don't always necessarily make the world a better place. But then, you could argue that almost any technology creates new risks for us to be aware of and adapt to – cars, planes, televisions – and it's often the ways we use them rather than an inherent flaw in the technology itself that does the damage. So let's look at some of the risks that come with smartphones, and how best to reduce them.

Cybercrime

The government defined cybercrime in a 2013 review in two ways:

    • Crime that is completely dependent on "a computer, computer network, or other form of ICT" to be carried out – such as hacking and viruses.
    • Traditional crime that can be "increased in scale by the use of computers, computer networks or other ICT" – like fraud, theft, and child sexual abuse.
      As mentioned, when cybercrime was included in crime stats for the first time, the number more than doubled. Because of the changes in how crimes are recorded, and a lack of distinction between users of computers and devices like smartphones, specific statistics are difficult to pin down, but the 2013 Norton Report suggests that 38% of smartphone users have been a victim of cybercrime.

There are steps you can take to reduce the risks from cybercrime. Make sure your passwords are complex and hard to guess, and don't use the same one for everything. Don't access sensitive info online when you're using public Wi-Fi, and only ever access online banking through the banks' own apps.

Contrary to popular belief, you can also get antivirus apps for your phone, as they are susceptible to viruses and malware. Make sure you stick with a trusted provider like Avast, as some supposed security apps are actually malware in disguise themselves.

Cyberbullying and inappropriate content

Cyberbullying is on the rise – BullyingUK reported a 77% rise in 2015, with over 40% of children aged 11-16 reporting that they'd been bullied by social networks.

Children given unrestricted access to the internet can also find inappropriate content with ease, whether it's pornography or violent or offensive content.

The internet's a scary place, and smartphones provide risks for both children and adults. Grooming, catfishing (the use of fictional online personas) and revenge pornography (sharing explicit photos of an ex to shame them) aren't caused by smartphones, but their prevalence does make crimes like this easier.

Laws are being tightened, but the answer mostly lies in education – teaching children (and adults) what to share and what not to share, what to say and what not to say, how to block people and walk away, who to talk to when you're in trouble, how to spot fake profiles from something as simple as a reverse image search of their picture and knowing to respect other people's privacy when it comes to their sensitive data. The NSPCC has some fantastic guidance on this – click here to find out more.

Smartphone theft

It seems obvious to point out that smartphone theft is probably the only crime that was impossible before the smartphone. A government report into the issue of phone theft found that 742,000 people had their phones stolen in 2012/2013.

The most common examples weren't actually muggings – more often it was a case of pick-pocketing or snatching a phone out of someone's hands, but the report found that by far the most common method of phone theft was down to people leaving them unattended in a public place.

So the solutions are simple – keep your phone securely in a pocket where you could feel it being stolen, or in a fastened bag. But most of all, don't leave it lying around unattended!

However, there are some tech-led solutions for discouraging phone thefts. Ever since the introduction of kill switches, which disable phones and essentially brick them if they're stolen, rates of mobile phone theft have fallen by up to 50%.

Distractions

Can't keep your eyes off your phone? It's a big problem. Distracted walking or driving can lead to disaster, and a study by Carnegie Mellon University found that even the simplest phone use reduces brain activity related to the task at hand (driving, for example) by 37%.

Although the most recent government statistics show that road casualties in the UK are falling, there's plenty of anecdotal evidence about people wandering out into the road while looking at their phone – especially since Pokémon Go launched.

The answer? Look up from your phone every now and then! With hands-free devices so readily available, and some coming built into cars, there's no excuse for using a phone while driving. Are smart watches the pedestrian equivalent of a hands-free kit? The jury's still out, but they do seem like a useful way of glancing at your notifications without getting fully engrossed in your phone.

Health risks

It sounds like scaremongering, but there have been a number of links drawn between smartphone use and health problems.

Hunching over phones means a rise in back and neck pain. Sleeping with your phone by the bed is affecting how well you rest. Obesity, depression and anxiety all have links to increased smartphone usage.

Similar health risks get thrown around for videogames, computers, just about any technology. There is truth in it, but could it be more of a contributing factor than a cause?

The answer is ensuring you're using your devices safely – taking regular breaks, staying active, turning it off at night or leaving it in another room, and remembering when to just ignore work emails and switch off.

Women drinking coffee and looking at mobile phone

Based on the risks discussed above, it may seem like smartphones are potential troublemakers – but these risks are caused by the way people use their phones, rather than anything inherently bad in the technology themselves.

The key, then, is education on how to use tech safely and responsibly, and this is improving as generations grow up with phones as a part of their lives. So while phones aren't without their risks and dangers, we do think that the ability to stay connected is a good thing, and one that's had an overall positive impact on the world.

Read "Do smartphones make the world a safer place?"

Case Studies

Helping people stay safe

Survey numbers are helpful for seeing general awareness and usage, but they don't tell us exactly how or why people are using the safety features on their phone. We talked to two women who told us about their experiences with some of these features.

Carol* started using more of her phone's built-in safety features after a friend had a particularly bad experience, which was made worse by not using one of the simplest ones of all:

"She got spiked, passed out, and was taken to hospital. She didn't have her purse or ID because she'd managed to lose them on the way, so it was hard for the hospital to find out who she was, which meant that it took ages for them to get in touch with her family."

It was the hospital staff that told her about how her phone could help. "They told her to save a contact under ICE (in case of emergency), which most phones recognise as an emergency contact and allow people to view without unlocking the phone," says Carol. "She told everyone about it, and now one of the first things I do when I get a new phone is to set this up - just in case!"


Lindsay* uses a number of safety features on her phone, including a Medical ID app. "You can get to it from the lock screen, and it has details about my medical history, blood type and allergies, as well as an emergency contact.

"I also have a folder on my phone that uses a separate pin to unlock – great for those pics you don’t want your family to see. Also, it takes a front-facing picture whenever a code is entered wrong, along with a time stamp.

However, the most helpful feature has been one she hasn't actually had to use herself:

"My husband once used Friend Finder to find me on a night out when I needed a lift and was too drunk to explain where I was." Other than that, fortunately, there have been no emergencies that have required a smartphone SOS.

We also asked Lindsay what safety features she thinks would be useful on a smartphone. "I wish you could ask Siri to call the police with a secret command," she says. "I think this would be great for domestic violence victims."

It's obviously a great idea – and as mentioned above, there are plenty of apps that offer a feature similar to this. But the fact that people aren't always aware of them implies that many who could benefit from such an app don't even know they exist.

Young child in fathers arms with smartphone

Helping parents keep their kids safe

Giving kids their first phone is a big part of giving them their first taste of independence, as well as the added security of letting them stay in touch while they're at school or out exploring. We spoke to three parents about how phones have changed the way they think about their kids' safety – both in the real world and while they're using the internet.

Martin* has one son, aged nine. He's been receiving dad's hand-me-downs since he was seven, as a number of his other friends had phones too. As he works in tech himself, Martin was wary of what the device could do in younger hands, so spoke at length with his son about the dangers of online communications, and added a few safeguards to the device:

"The SIM card has been removed, a large number of apps have been hidden away. He has a vanilla Google account attached with no payment options so he can’t use micro transactions.

While many other parents give their kids phones so they can call home in an emergency, Martin doesn't think it's quite necessary yet:

"He's only nine, he doesn't need to send texts or make calls, and he has instant messaging over WiFi if he wants to chat.

"We don't let him get into situations where he would need to use a phone in an emergency – he's always close by or with a trusted adult at this stage. We discussed it recently, and expect him to need a fully functioning phone around 12."


Joanne* has two boys aged 12 and 14. When each one turned 11, they started high school, gained a bit more independence and – most importantly – noticed all of their friends already had phones.

"They both hounded me for a phone because a lot of their friends had them before high school age," she says. Each now has a hand-me-down left redundant after Mum's upgrade, with a cheap contract on Three for about £7 a month.

The phones have no parental controls, and Joanne didn't spend much time warning them about the dangers of going online until she had to have a conversation with her youngest about some of the content she found in his Whatsapp messages:

"It was just some silly rude stuff that 12 year old boys will take part in. I've had many a talk since with both of them about sending photos and how it's impossible to retract things that you post once they are out there.

"They know that the deal is, they get a phone, but either me or their dad can pick that phone up when we want and look through it."

At the end of the day, though, the kids' phones are a good thing for Joanne despite some worries:

"I really don’t like them to be out in public on their phones as I always worry they might get robbed! But all parents get kids a phone in case there's an emergency, and as far as I know we haven’t had one yet.

"It has been useful though – If I'm late to pick them up it does give me peace of mind that I can call and tell them I’m running late and not have to worry."


Dan* has one son, aged 11, who was given a cheap phone for the first time at age 8, when he went away for a school trip.

"At that stage it wasn't his idea, he was obviously well aware of phones but at that point the only things that attracted to him were games and the internet, so he was pretty happy with his iPod touch.

"After he moved off his burner, I gave him my old iPhone. To begin with I used Apple's parental controls, but when I jumped ship from an Apple phone myself that became unworkable and it's not something that we use any more."

Dan's son isn't allowed to use Facebook and Snapchat until he's old enough to satisfy the app's own policies, and he's been educated on the dangers of going online both by dad and at school.

"For me, the stand out issue is cyber bullying," says Dan. "I see a lot of this, not aimed at my son but comments on YouTube in particular."

But just like for many parents, the risks are worth it for the security a phone provides, with a phone call regularly helping out in the tricky situations that can arise every day:

"The first time was when I dropped him off at a regular out of school club that he attends. It was actually cancelled and the information hadn't gotten to me.

"I dropped him off and received a call shortly afterwards telling me that no-one was there and everyone had left. Maybe not a huge emergency, but a difficult situation avoided."

*Names have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.

Read "Do smartphones make the world a safer place?"

Resources

http://www.tylervigen.com/spurious-correlations

http://www.statista.com/statistics/289167/mobile-phone-penetration-in-the-uk/

https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/445662/rec-crime-2003-2015.ods

http://www.statista.com/statistics/289167/mobile-phone-penetration-in-the-uk/

http://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/news/2011/feb/02/san-diegos-crime-rate-lowest-1963/

http://scholarship.law.upenn.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1425&context=faculty_scholarship

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/crime/11932670/Cyber-crime-fuels-70-jump-in-crime-levels.html

https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/246749/horr75-summary.pdf

http://www.symantec.com/content/en/us/about/presskits/b-norton-report-2013-infographic.en-us.pdf

http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/features/cyberbullying-what-to-do-9983103.html

https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/390901/HO_Mobile_theft_paper_Dec_14_WEB.PDF

https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2015/feb/11/london-smartphone-theft-drops-after-kill-switch-introduction-iphones

http://www.cmu.edu/homepage/health/2009/winter/just-drive.shtml

https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/533293/rrcgb-main-results-2015.pdf

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-switch/wp/2016/07/08/pokemon-gos-unexpected-side-effect-injuries/

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/health/news/11530863/iPad-neck-Huge-rise-in-back-and-neck-pain-among-youth.html

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/09/16/sleep-phone-tablet-bed_n_3924161.html

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/news/11532428/Why-smartphones-are-making-you-ill.html

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