Pacific Media Watch

24 August 2011

PNG: Mobile phones in rural villages a 'double-edged sword', says researcher

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Amanda Watson conducts mobile phone research with villagers in Orora, Madang province in Papua New Guinea, February 2009. Photo: Amanda Watson

BRISBANE (Queensland University of Technology/Pacific Media Watch): The introduction of mobile phones in rural villages in Papua New Guinea is seen as a double-edged sword, with communities welcoming the opportunity to communicate but fearing it will lead to family breakdowns.

A study by Queensland University of Technology (QUT) researcher Amanda Watson has explored the way new mobile technology, in areas which did not have landline, internet or electricity access, has been changing people's lives, social structures and relationships.

"We are talking about rural areas which had little or no access to modern communication technologies and in many instances were still using traditional forms of communication such as the drum," Watson said.

Amanda Watson ... researched the benefits of mobile phones in rural PNG villages. Photo: QUTWatson, who is completing her PhD with QUT's Creative Industries Faculty, said the study of almost 750 people from 10 villages found that while most people were generally positive about the communication benefits of mobile phones, it was how they were using the technology that was most surprising.

"Instead of using mobile phones for business or to improve their economic status, people related the benefits mostly to the enhanced communications they could have with family and friends who were living away from home villages," she said.

"It suggests that social uses of the technology, rather than functional uses such as searching for jobs or coordinating logistics, mark the key benefit felt by rural villagers in PNG."

But Watson said there were also concerns that mobile phone technology was leading to marriage breakdowns.

"For example we were hearing stories about someone seeing their partner engage in a private conversation using a mobile phone, either talking quietly or text messaging, and this was causing jealously and tension within the marriage," she said.

"So there was definitely this feeling that mobile phones were leading to more instances of marriages falling apart."

Watson said there were also difficulties associated with owning mobile phones such as the cost of the calls and the logistical challenges of charging a handset battery without easy access to mains power.

She said by identifying the negatives linked to mobile phones, it was hoped that policy and practices could be introduced to overcome these challenges.

"Efforts to reduce usage costs, enable easier recharging and designing more robust handsets would allow for increased use of mobile phones for a range of purposes," Watson said.

"I think mobile phone services in rural areas present a big change in these places where they've missed out on most steps in the evolution of technology, but it is an important change and worth documenting."

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