Twenty-five years ago this month, communications in Guilford County changed forever.
Then-mayor John Forbis made the first official cell phone call in the county’s history.
“Totally cellular,” said a headline in the News & Record. “Newfangled telephone unveiled.”
How things have changed in the quarter of a century since.
Cell phones have gotten smaller, more sophisticated and less expensive.
The one Forbis used looked like a brick, had to be plugged into a car and cost nearly $1,700.
But more than anything, cell phones have become ubiquitous. Everybody over the age of 12 seems to have one.
Since 1985, nationwide, the number of wireless subscribers has jumped from 340,000 to more than 285 million. That’s about 91 percent of the population.
Most (69 percent) say the phones have changed life for the better. Yet, when it comes to smart phones, which are capable of more advanced wireless services, far fewer users (56 percent) feel the same way.
And a recent survey by the Pew Research Center, a Washington think tank, shows a growing list of concerns associated with cell phone use.
“I think we have a typical technological marriage that involves a lot of disputes,” said Roy Schwartzman, a professor of communication studies at UNCG. “But in the end, we can’t live without them.”
The Pew report called cell phones “a mixed blessing.”
Parents and teens say the devices make their lives safer and more convenient, yet both cite “new tensions” connected to cell phone use.
Among other things, the report looked at what it called the “side effects” of cell phone use among teens. These include issues such as distracted driving, so-called “sexting” and mobile harassment.
Beyond that, researchers worry that cell phones have reduced rather than increased real communication. They say that subscribers are making fewer and shorter calls.
Last year, the average call lasted 1.8 minutes compared with just over three minutes in 2006.
Now, customers increasingly use their phones for texting, taking pictures, playing music, browsing the Internet and visiting social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter.
“I’m using my phone for everything but calling,” said Adam Swartz, 20, of Greensboro, who owns two cell phones. “I am not going to call just to shoot the breeze. That’s what I text for.”
Last year, cell subscribers sent more than 1.5 trillion text messages.
For teens, texting has become the favored means of communication. On a daily basis, they’re more likely to text their friends (54%), than talk to them on the phone (38%) or face to face (33%).
The Pew report says one in three teens sends more than 100 texts a day. They typically make or receive about five cell phone calls daily.
Such habits start early. Researchers say many youngsters get their first cell phone in middle school.
“Getting that cell phone is a new rite of passage for adolescents,” said Bethany Blair, a doctoral candidate in human development and family studies at UNCG, who has researched how young people and their mothers look at technology.
“It is allowing adolescents to develop independence but at the same time it may be delaying independence because they can still contact their parents.”
The Pew report also found that:
l Many schools treat cell phones as a disruptive force that must be managed and often excluded from the classroom. Some educators worry that students will use their phones to cheat.
l Half of teens say they have talked on the phone while driving. A third have sent a text while behind the wheel.
l A quarter say they have been bullied or harassed via a text or call.
“I think it is terrible,” one high school girl told the researchers. “You can’t escape the hatred. Even when you go home, someone can pick on you.”
l Fifteen percent say they have received a “sext,” a sexually suggestive nude or nearly nude image of someone they know. Another national study puts that number at 31 percent.
l Nearly 70 percent use their phones as boredom killers.
“You grow accustomed to having it so much, so like when you don’t have it, you’ve got to find other things to occupy your time,” one teen told researchers. “I’ll be like, ‘I should read a book! No, I shouldn’t. I should have my phone!’ It just really sucks.”
l Almost half say they regret a text message they have sent. Researchers say misunderstandings can arise when teens try to express themselves using 160 characters of text or less.
Beyond those concerns, cell phone users wrestle with a host of other issues — do the devices cause cancer and other health risks, how do subscribers escape always being “on call” and how can they convince other callers to tone down their volume in public?
“Technology is not an angel or a demon in itself,” said Schwartzman, the UNCG professor. “We create angels and demons out these technologies. What technology does is open up more choices for us. As a result, we have more responsibilities in using them.”
Forbis didn’t have to worry about such issues when he made his historic call to Wayne Corpening, then the mayor of Winston-Salem, on May 15, 1985.
Forbis had been scheduled to call then Gov. Jim Martin in Raleigh, but the governor was out of the office. So much for increased connectivity. Instead, Forbis phoned Corpening and the conversation got off to a rough start.
Corpening: “I can hear you loud and strong.”
Forbis: “Are you getting a good transmission?”
Reporter Bradley Johnson, who covered the call, wrote that “cellular has a long way to go.”
Contact Donald W. Patterson at 373-7027 or don.patterson @news-record.com
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