The British love affair with the mobile phone continues as an astonishing number of Brits chose SMS (short message service) text messages as the way to say 'Will you be my Valentine?' — or rather 'WUBMV?' in text-speak — on Valentine's Day last week.

According to a study released by the Virgin Group on 12 February, mobile phone users in the UK sent a total of 50 million text messages on Valentine's Day last year; in 2002 the total was expected to top 80 million.

The study also found that over 57 percent of the UK's 24 million mobile phone users would consider sending an SMS from their phone instead of a Valentine's card, Virgin said in a statement. That figure was supported by Consignia, which estimated it would deliver 12 million cards by traditional mail.

"Though we aren't able to give out actual numbers, we experienced about a 17 percent increase over regular SMS traffic on Valentine's Day last week," said Virgin spokeswoman Alison Bonny on Monday.

Full figures for all Valentine's Day text messages will be released by the MDA (Mobile Data Association) at the end of March, a spokeswoman for the MDA said.

The popularity of text messages in the UK is by no mean a Valentine's Day phenomenon. In December 2000, 756 million texts were sent throughout the UK. By December 2001, that number was up to 1.3 billion, the MDA said on its website. Britons now send approximately 42 million texts each day, compared to 24 million during the same period last year and 8.7 million text messages per day in 1999, the MDA said.

"Us Brits don't necessarily speak to strangers openly. We are a reserved people and texting allows us to subvert some of those inhibitions. With an SMS, we can say things without having to lose face," said Phillip Hodson, fellow of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy.

And while being less nerve-wracking than approaching someone face to face, a text message still allows a person to do something daring and risky, Hodson said.

Something daring like letting that special someone know "ImRdy4Luv" (I'm ready for love) or "fanc a 3sum" (fancy a threesome).

According to the Virgin study, out of 12 million adults in London, 2.8 million are single while there are 10 million single adults in the UK out of a total population of 46 million.

"It's a very crowded country and we are very aware of our lack of space. Young people first started using text messaging, as a lot of teenagers are terribly shy. Quite a few of those teenagers then taught their parents and other adults in their lives how to use the technology and this form of living in modern society," Hodson said.

Texting also has the advantage of being more private than email sent from the office and can be more uncensored and therefore better for flirting, Hodson said. You also don't have to wait for a reply in the mail, as a text message is instantaneous, he added.

The mobile phone industry is also in love with text messaging, but for a very different reason. With text messages costing an average of £0.12 (US$0.17) each, according to the MDA, if Virgin's estimate of 80 million Valentine's SMS messages proves to be correct, £9.6 million was generated for the four major mobile phone carriers: Orange, Vodafone, BT Cellnet and One2One.

With that kind of money involved, the mobile phone operators are eager to milk the cash cow. Virgin Mobile has recently appointed Nick White as the head of its adult services, in charge of developing adult content over the mobile phone. One upcoming service is 'Flirt Alert' which allows users to send anonymous text messages to up to five people at any one time, Virgin said.

For its part, Vodafone set up a special Valentine's Day service that allowed users to send anonymous text messages and keep the object of Cupid's arrow guessing in the Valentine's Day tradition.

Ah, love: it's a thin line between being truly loved up with your moby, as one would say here, or trying to dodge a hi-tech stalker.