Smart use of Smartphones and social media

What were the first words ever spoken on the telephone?

They were spoken by Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone, when he made the first call on March 10, 1876, to his assistant Thomas Watson: “Mr. Watson, come here, I want to see you.” What would you have said?

For decades telephones were simply a device for relaying conversation between two people. Both parties were free to say what they like as it was private. How things have changed since then with the advent of smartphones and social media…

The smartphone is primarily a communication tool, albeit an ever increasingly sophisticated one. They came onto the market in the late 1990s, offering features such as email communication, text-based web-browsing, QUERTY keyboards and in-built cameras. The first smartphone as we know it today, with a HD touchscreen, countless apps and high-speed internet, was introduced by Apple in 2007 with the launch of the iPhone.

Unique mobile users exceeded 50% of the world’s population at the end of 2014, and the current year-on-year growth rate of more than 5% suggests we’ll see roughly 200 million new mobile users over the next 12 months.

Smartphones account for an increasingly large proportion of mobile use, with Ericsson reporting that these devices claim a 38% share of the world’s active connections.

Social media

Computer technology began to change very rapidly in the 20th century. After the first super computers were created in the 1940s, scientists and engineers began to develop ways to create networks between those computers, and this would later lead to the birth of the internet.

The earliest forms of the internet, such as CompuServe, were developed in the 1960s. Primitive forms of email were also developed during this time. By the 70s, networking technology had improved and 1979’s UseNet allowed users to communicate through a virtual newsletter.

By the 1980s, home computers were becoming more common and social media was becoming more sophisticated. Internet relay chats, or IRCs, were first used in 1988 and continued to be popular well into the 1990s.

The first recognisable social media site, Six Degrees, was created in 1997. It enabled users to upload a profile and make friends with other users. In 1999, the first blogging sites became popular, creating a social media sensation that’s still popular today. MySpace and LinkedIn gained prominence in the early 2000s, and sites like Photobucket and Flickr facilitated online photo sharing. YouTube came out in 2005, creating an entirely new way for people to communicate and share with each other across great distances.

By 2006, Facebook and Twitter both became available to users throughout the world.


Social media and the smartphone have changed our lives but unfortunately not always in a positive way. Abuse and discriminatory behaviour on social media can take many forms: sexism, racism, homophobia, ageism, faith and disability-related incidents. Facebook continues to dominate the global social media landscape, claiming 1.366 billion active users in January 2015. Crucially, 1.133 billion of the platform’s global users – 83% of the total – now access the service through mobile devices.

This was well summed up recently by a Japanese IT analyst who stated that “the reality of the online world, where people can attempt to contact anyone, is one where children and minors need to carefully scrutinize unknown people. For many young people, the internet appears to be a virtual world. However, the internet is closely connected to the real world. What may seem fun or fantasy on the small screen of a cell phone can quickly become a dangerous actuality in the material world”. Unfortunately many of the risks are self-generated.

According to Digital Trends UK, it is a numbers game, but an awfully depressing one – apparently Facebook and Twitter are so overpopulated that perverts, paedophiles and rapists using the platforms are growing in numbers. The number of sexual assault cases related to both social media sites has reached incredible heights; in only four years since 2009, reports have increased by 341%. To further demonstrate how serious this particular statistic is, half of those cases involved victims under the age of 16.

While the statistics above reflect data collected in the UK, it shouldn’t make it less scary for Facebook and Twitter users in other countries, especially those who have young family members who are allowed access to social media sites. In one case, a “harmless” chat between a stranger and a 12 year-old girl – never mind Facebook’s restriction that a user needs to be at least 13 to use the site – turned into “first-degree child sexual assault and use of a computer to facilitate a child sex crime” charges. Tragically bullying on social media has led to suicides.

Some examples in the Algarve

Safe Communities Portugal has increasingly encountered local examples of social media abuse mainly through smartphones. Here are some very different examples ranging from simply not thinking ahead of the consequences to deliberate criminal acts.

Many instances of people carelessly giving away too many personal details, including one where a person posted a close up photo of his driving licence with ID on Facebook.

A person who reported her handbag stolen and instead of reporting it to police posted the culprits description on Facebook – a person, who may or may not have been the culprit, was subsequently assaulted in revenge.

A person posted on Facebook that a person had been raped in the Algarve. Details of location and names of perpetrators were given – this was later found to be false.

The recent case of a woman who made false corruption allegations against the GNR on Facebook and is now being prosecuted for doing so.

Facebook trolls against a charitable animal sanctuary resulting in harm to their work.

The Polícia Judiciária have also raised concerns over the level of sexting where youngsters take compromising photos of themselves and send to friends; as well as cases of extortion/blackmail, where people have threatened to send compromising pictures of the victim unless money is paid or they receive other favours – usually sexual.

Think before you act

The problem is that many people act on impulse and do not think through the consequences when they post all sorts of things on Facebook and other social media sites. This can range from deeply upsetting people, destroying reputations and slander, to “trolling” which can be criminal. Of course we live in a world of freedom of speech, but tempered with this comes accepting responsibility for our words and actions.

And finally

Please remember NOT to take selfies when driving, which has now become one of the major causes of fatal traffic accidents.

The message is simple: the smartphone and the use of social media have brought people together in a way unimaginable 150 years ago – but let’s be SMART in their use.

By David Thomas
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David Thomas is a former Assistant Commissioner of the Hong Kong Police, consultant to INTERPOL and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. In October 2011 he founded Safe Communities Algarve an on-line platform here in the Algarve to help the authorities and the community prevent crime. It is now registered as Associação SCP Safe Communities Portugal, the first national association of its type in Portugal, with a new website launched in May 2015. He can be contacted at [email protected], or on 913045093 or at