Remember when apples and blackberries were just fruits?

Recently Charles and I were having a meal with friends at a popular cafe in Jerusalem.

Suddenly an unknown woman came over to our table.  “Excuse me”, she said, “I am sorry to disturb you but I must tell you that I have been watching you and your friends for the past hour and I have to say how wonderful it is to see you so engaged with each other. It is very unusual nowadays to see people actually talking to one another – just look around”. She was right – in the entire restaurant there was scarcely a diner who was not texting, reading or playing with their smartphones, ignoring their friends at the same table.

IMG_7718.JPGenjoying a night out with the family.

This encounter started me thinking about  the pros and cons of today’s communication technology –  it was a sobering exercise.

On the plus side, it is without question invaluable to be able to communicate readily with family and friends all over the world. Business people were among the first to latch on to the Blackberry – to be accessible to clients, customers and colleagues around the clock. In an emergency there is nothing as valuable as a cellphone. And It is also an exceptional tool for finding information on everything imaginable.

A year ago I was coerced into buying a ‘smart’ phone by my granddaughter – “You can’t possibly use that old phone of yours”, she expostulated – it should be in a museum”. I really tried to be in touch on ‘Whatsapp’  (or What’s up’?) but so far have only managed it twice.  I also accept that  there is value  in having a cellphone to find ones way around, but it is so much simpler for me to ask someone who already has  one as they immediately point me in the right direction.

On the minus side, articles about the health dangers of excessive phone use are increasing.   When smartphones first appeared, initial concern focused  on the risks from electromagnetic radiation. This was thought to cause cancer and alter brain metabolism, but recent research has shown that the radio frequency used is too low to cause harm.

This is not, however, the case with children.  An Israel survey indicates that 83% of 8 – 13 year olds have smartphones – the number jumps to 97% at 15.  But their brains are still developing and absorb 60% more radiation than adults.  As little as two minutes use can affect a child’s brain for up to an hour,  impairing their learning ability and  causing mood changes and behavioural problems.

Many children whose phones are taken away from them at school suffer panic attacks but the schools that ban them show improved exam results. More serious is ’Sexting’ – sending inappropriate sexual images and texts  – an activity that can lead to a lifetime of being haunted by a teenage mistake. The rising number of nude photos distributed virally proves that sexting is very difficult to control even with constant parental vigilance.

Some educators express concern that young people who use ‘textspeak’  – a  new language of acronyms, signs and short forms,  quite unintelligible to a non-user – may gradually  lose the ability to communicate verbally or write in traditional forms. Others, however, maintain that youngsters realise the difference between the two systems  and it is unlikely to affect their ability to write or communicate as before.  Only time will tell.

In general, however, limiting usage of cellphones is strongly advised, especially for boys.  Haifa Technion researchers recently found that mobile phones are “cooking sperm”.  Males should avoid keeping their phones in trouser pockets, never sleep with them by the bed and never use them whilst they are being charged. Furthermore, a laptop should never be used on a lap but kept well away from the groin area to avoid harm to their reproductive capacities.

Another health concern today is the bacteria that apparently contaminates one in six cellphones with e.coli originating from faecal matter and even MRSA.The advice is ‘disinfect your keypad’ – but to my mind this is no different to cleaning many other items regularly handled. One friend  of mine would never touch a supermarket trolley without first wiping the hand rail.  I always found this a bit eccentric, but then I was brought up to understand that “ a bit o’ muck won’t hurt ‘,  a philosophy endorsed in the New York Times where a Dr. Weinstock  writes “Children should be allowed to go barefoot in the dirt, play in the dirt, and not have to wash their hands when they come in to eat,”  An average human harbours  some 90 trillion microbes and it is these that keep you healthy.  People need ‘muck’ to help develop their immune systems rather than being overprotected in sanitised conditions.

But the worst danger from cell phones is behavioural. Walk along any street and almost everyone uses one. Oblivious to their surroundings, they bump into other pedestrians and  cross roads regardless of traffic. This activity has spawned a new word – ‘smombies’ (smartphone zombies) who ‘text walk’ becoming a hazard to themselves, other pedestrians, cyclists and drivers.

Drivers can be even more dangerous.  Anyone texting or phoning whilst at the wheel is 50 percent more likely to cause an accident and is as much a risk as a drunken driver.

Recently an unusual case occurred in Israel, capturing the imagination of a disbelieving public. A bus driver, wearing his tallith and tefillin was caught on camera and arrested for using his smartphone to recite his prayers whilst driving a bus full of passengers.

This reminded me of the story of the Rabbi and the bus driver. Both arrive in Heaven on the same day.   The bus driver is applauded on arrival at the ‘Pearly Gates’ but not the Rabbi.  Puzzled, the Rabbi questions this and is told,  “When you gave a sermon everyone went to sleep. When he drove his bus, everyone prayed”.

Not unsurprisingly the use of cellphones in religion has taken a new direction in Israel. At the Kotel (Western Wall) recently I saw a bearded gentleman pressing both his ear and phone to the Wall whilst engaged in a lively conversation.  What on earth was going on?

I then remembered that it was Israeli scientists who were the first  to develop cell-phone technology – the SMS and voice mail systems, to the point where mobile chips from a single Israel company are installed in over 100 million devices worldwide today.

My conclusion, therefore, is that these researchers have now discovered a hot link to the Almighty.  I intend giving this a try. However the first step in my case is to charge my phone – something I rarely remember to do.

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