Why Your Smartphone Poses a New Threat to Your Health

As many states ban the dangerous practice of texting while driving, texting while walking is fast becoming a threat to public health. Viral videos on the web show a California man so focused on his phone that he almost walks into a wild bear; another one shows a woman tripping into a fountain at a Pennsylvania shopping mall. These incidents may sound funny, but the danger is very real.

Emergency physicians have reported injuries including facial fractures, blunt head trauma, lacerations, nosebleeds, and foot and ankle injuries. Newspapers have reported on phone-fixated victims who stumble off subway platforms, fall off piers, or trip into ditches.

Many of us are guilty of texting while en route to our destinations, and most of us think we’ll never have one of these accidents. However, the numbers don’t lie: The Consumer Product Safety Commission reported over 1100 injuries last year in the US related to texting while walking, a number that has quadrupled in the last seven years. However, the actual number of injuries is suspected to be higher.

This has already prompted government action. This spring, the Utah Transit Authority started issuing $50 fines for “distracted walking” around dangerous railways. The city of Fort Lee in New Jersey has issued a similar $85 jaywalking fine after three pedestrian fatalities were reported. The state of Delaware has placed warning stickers on sidewalks urging texters to “Look up.” To raise awareness about safety, the city of Philadelphia allocated special “e-lanes” on sidewalks for texters on April Fool’s Day.

This problem further proves our brain’s inability to multitask effectively. Psychologists call this concept “divided attention” or “inattentional blindness.” Instead of performing tasks simultaneously, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLFC), a region of the brain’s frontal lobe, switches our attention from task to task very quickly. These quick shifts in attention focus may, however, give us the false perception that we may actually be multitasking.

Because walking requires fewer cognitive demands than driving, pedestrians may feel less compelled to put the cell phone away. However, research shows that texting or talking on the phone does prevent us from safely carrying out the demands of walking. An Ohio State University study showed that cognitive distraction from mobile phone use reduces situation awareness and increases unsafe behavior. This puts pedestrians at greater risk for crime victimization and accidents that can land you in the emergency room or worse.

Despite the increasing risks, government regulation of texting while walking remains a heated issue. Some jokingly claim that it “interferes with natural selection.” However, research shows we are all capable of making mistakes – our brains are wired that way. Perhaps, the sooner we recognize our cognitive weaknesses, the more likely we’ll be to adhere to common sense and the old saying, “Safey first.” Bottom line: We may all benefit from putting our phones away while walking, taking the time to appreciate our surroundings – and avoid wild bears in the process.