Your Cell Phone is Fooling You

I taught a class of bright young college women over the weekend. They were smart, strong, and aware that sometimes, the best defense is a good, well, defense. What impressed me most about this group was just how inseparable they are from their phones. When I talked about how to keep safe while walking through the city after dark, one young lady assured me she had this situation locked up: “I talk to my mom on my cell phone the whole time. That way, nobody will mess with me!”

When I asked her to explain how this keeps her safe, she explained that, should anything happen to her, her mother would know where she was (approximately) and would immediately dial 911. “And then?” I asked. Then, she went on, the police would come and the attacker would run away.

That would be great–if that’s how crime and crime-fighting actually worked. However, this scenario she has imagined is not only giving her a false sense of security; it’s putting her in danger. One thing muggers, rapists, and others who prey on women look for is someone who is distracted. Chatting on the phone with mom, recalling the events of the day, this young woman was not looking around her, checking the reflections of store windows to see if anyone was following her, glancing about to see if anything looked amiss. She made it easy for someone to walk right up behind her and grab her.

And what about that grab? Let’s say she had just finished telling her mother, “By the way, I’m walking past the ice cream shop on Main Street now. So, can you believe what Roger said to me today…” Next, her mom hears her scream, or maybe she just hears the phone drop on the ground. She takes a few seconds, trying to figure out what’s happening. Could her daughter really be in some kind of trouble? Maybe she just tripped on uneven pavement, and the phone slipped out of her hand… But she’s not coming back on the line. Suspecting the worst, mom calls 911.

The dispatcher answers on the first ring, questions mom about her emergency, and notifies the correct authorities. The local police are on their way–speeding to the last known location of the young woman: the ice cream shop on Main Street. Sirens blaring and lights flashing, they get there in under two minutes, jump out of the car, and look around for our student.

But where is she? Would the attacker follow her for blocks, close the distance behind her, sneak up and clap a hand over her mouth, grab her and then… stay there? Would he remain in plain view of the public, or would he forcefully take her to an isolated spot, a place where he can be free to perpetrate whatever crime against her he favors?

The police in this scenario arrived on the scene within 2 minutes of the initial attack, which is pretty darned fast. But as I asked the student, “What do you suppose would be happening to you during that time? Those might just be the longest 2 minutes of your life.” She realized that, while it would be reassuring to have a continuous live connection to Emergency Dispatch, 1) she never really had one to begin with,  and 2) she created more danger for herself talking on her phone than had she simply looked around as she walked.


Other thoughts on Cell Phones and “Safety”:

Another girl in this class said that she didn’t chat on her cell phone while she walked, because she knew she could be distracted. Instead, she kept her finger poised over the setting she had for 911 on Speed Dial. She wanted to know if I agreed that she was well-prepared for an emergency. I did think she was wise not to talk on her phone as she walked, and told her so. But I asked if she’d ever pocket-dialed anyone, or accidentally called the wrong number on speed dial. She had, and understood how keeping a finger hovering over “911” could be problematic. Then, I asked about a deeper issue: if she was so concerned about her safety that she felt she needed to keep her finger a centimeter away from calling for help, might it not be a better, safer plan to find a different way to get home from work every night? Your cell phone can’t protect you from danger. Instead, take the bus, walk with friends,or maybe change your shift. If you feel that the only thing keeping you safe is luck and a speedy connection to Emergency Dispatch, your brain is telling you that something needs to change.


Marketers seem to enjoy playing on the fears of young women. Several of the college girls boasted to me that they had locator apps on their phones. We had just concluded a segment on date rape and how to prevent being victimized this way. One student proudly explained to me that with this app they all have, “The whole group of us can go to a party, or out to a club, and we always know where each other is. We just check the app and can tell if everyone is still at the house where the party is, or still at the club!”

When I pointed out that what they were actually finding was the location of their friend’s phone–not necessarily their friend–their faces fell in realization. Relying on cell phones to stay safe is a dangerous mistake. No app can take the place of sound judgment and caution–and, if needed, a well-placed strike to a vulnerable body part.


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