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Digital Companions: Are Smartphones Replacing Our Loved Ones?

17/08/2016 16:02 | Updated 17 August 2016

Think back to the last time you looked at your mobile phone. For most of us, the answer will be just a few seconds ago, and many of you will be looking at the screen of your smartphone right now. It's now commonplace for people around the world to be constantly connected to a digital device, as technology continues to evolve and offers us a portable and easy-to-use means of storage, entertainment and - most importantly - communication.

In fact, a recent experiment conducted for us by the Universities of Würzburg and Nottingham-Trent found that people left in a waiting room on their own lasted just 44 seconds before reaching out to check their smartphones, with participants using them for almost half of the 10-minute waiting session. At first glance, this seems like a rather short amount of time to be able to resist your phone, but in reality this is true of most smartphone owners.

Think, for instance, about a doctor's waiting room. Gone are the days when we would scan outdated magazines to pass the time. Instead, we now turn to our very own digital companion to provide us with endless amounts of entertainment and information.

For many of us, our smartphone has become an extension of ourselves - one that we look to for company and comfort at any time of the day. However, as the popularity of the digital device grows, the shocking reality of its dominance is becoming more evident, as people begin to depend on their phones just as much as their significant others. Another study has indicated that many participants said their smartphone was at least as important to them as their parents (29.4 per cent) and their partners (21.2 per cent), as they succumb to the growing tendency to replace interaction with loved ones with interactions with a device. What's more, 16.7 per cent of participants in fact rated their smartphone in the highest importance category.

You could be forgiven for thinking that we are not only reliant on our digital devices for quick communication, but that we also seek the same comfort and stability from our phone as we do from family and friends. I don't believe that this is the case. Rather, mobile technology has changed the way that we communicate with other people, with apps like WhatsApp, Twitter and Messenger enabling us to contact virtually anyone, any time, anywhere. Yet again, without the constant use of a digital companion, this continuous, real-time communication would not be possible.

This modern social norm, which is re-shaping the way that we both connect with others and share information, makes it more important than ever to secure our devices and the information we entrust to them.

Smart devices now act as companions that offer quick access to personal information - such as bank details, e-mails and contact details - as well as a store of sensitive personal data. Yet many people protect them with nothing more than a four-digit PIN. 93 per cent of participants in a recent experiment were more than happy to share their smartphone PIN number when asked, exposing access to all the data on the device.

Cleary, this willingness to store personal information on a smart device, or to use it to share sensitive data, leaves people open to the risk of becoming a victim to those who may attempt to obtain these details for fraud, blackmail or other criminal purposes. If our smartphones have become our best friends, we should protect them just as we would a real world best friend.

I would recommend doing the following to keep your smartphone safe:

1. Keep it locked
Make sure your phone's screen lock is on at all times so there's less risk if your phone falls into the hands of a cybercriminal. Don't use an easy-to-guess PIN - ideally, use a complex passcode or enable fingerprint scanning if your device supports it.

2. Encrypt your sensitive information
If your phone includes data encryption features, make sure you use them. In the event of your phone being stolen, criminals will not be able to access the personal information that's stored on your phone if that information has already been encrypted.

3. Monitor how apps behave on your phone
Only download apps from trusted sources. And be aware of permission access/requests from applications running on your phone.

4. Protect your phone and your data
Most people would never consider running a laptop, PC or Mac computer without anti-malware software. Don't forget that today's smartphones are powerful computers and that they are vulnerable to the same risks. Make sure you use a reputable anti-malware program on all of your mobile devices and ensure that it's regularly updated.

5. Choose a smartphone security solution with anti-theft features
Some smartphone security products include a range of anti-theft features that give you remote access to your lost or stolen phone, so you can lock the phone, wipe data from it and find its location.

6. Be aware of the risks of jailbreaking/rooting
Although it might be tempting to root or jailbreak your phone this will strip away the security. To help keep your phone and your data secure, we would recommend you don't root or jailbreak your phone.

7. Be cautious about how you connect
Don't use untrusted Wi-Fi networks for confidential transactions. And if you're not using your Bluetooth connection, it's a great idea to switch it off. That way, you'll make your phone less vulnerable to cyber-attack and you'll reduce the drain on your phone's battery.

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