Texting-While-Walking Bans Are Missing The Point About Smartphone Use


By Karen Turner

Walking and using your phone could be bad for your physical safety. It’s a concern that inspired a bill recently introduced by a New Jersey lawmaker that would fine people who walk and use their electronic devices at the same time. It’s one in a slew of similar measures that have been introduced in other states (none have passed at this point) in an attempt to show how distracted walking has become a problem in today’s society.

But what does the data show about how people are actually using their phones in public places?

About 75 percent of Americans who use smartphones report that they are either frequently or occasionally catching up on tasks while on the move. This is according to a Pew Research study that looks specifically at how Americans use their phones in public spaces. The data raises questions about whether using a smartphone in public is frivolous or simply demanded by new standards of constant connectivity in the workplace or social sphere.

“This is the constant tension of the always-on era,” said Aaron Smith, associate director for research at the Pew Research Center. “You are obviously more connected than ever before to other people, to information, to their jobs. But obviously, in many instances that places new challenges and stresses to their lives in ways there weren’t there before, when people could leave their office desktop at the office or left their landline phone at the house when they walked out the door.”

According to the study, the top reasons for using a smartphone in public were practical: to look up directions and coordinate meet-ups. Coming in next were to communicate with acquaintances and catch up on tasks. The data provided no deep-dive information into what kind of errands people were engaged in, but other research from Pew on overall smartphone use suggests that these tasks could include everything from online banking, looking up information about a health condition and work responsibilities.

Smith stressed the difficulty of parsing the difference between work and leisure tasks because of how intermingled they have become in our smartphone use.

“Just as an example, 27 percent of smartphone users are online almost constantly. So this is not the old days when people went online to do discrete tasks and then went about their daily lives,” said Smith. “We have not figured out a good way [to distinguish] partially because people are kind of floating along in a sea of this stuff. Even asking them to parse out which of their phone use is of a personal nature or professional nature or somewhere in between, it’s hard for users to contextualize that.”

Gillian Symon, a professor at Royal Holloway, agrees that work and leisure are becoming ever more fused in our smartphone use and that this is a problem. In a recent piece she wrote for The Conversation, she described research she has conducted for Digital Brain Switch, which analyzes work/life balance through methods like interviews, video diaries and self-reporting.

She brings up how social media use often combines work responsibilities and leisure: “When we blog and tweet for our employers, are we exploiting our personal identities for their ends? Are these additional tasks, and the need to maintain our digital presence online, causing us anxiety and increasing our workload without any formal recognition of the effort involved? These sorts of activities go beyond a concern with just maintaining a time boundary between work and life. They represent new tasks required to maintain our digital work lives.”

She also mentioned the rise of “digi-housekeeping,” which refers to the unaccounted hours spent maintaining devices through updates, back-ups and other tasks. When it comes to self-employed workers, the office/leisure divide is even more pronounced since they are required to mix personal and professional interaction on their devices regularly.

There’s no question that smartphone use has become so constant and distracting that it can have a negative effect on our safety, whether it be while walking, driving or putting our spines in poor posture. But Symon and other researchers say curbing this behavior may require an examination of factors and pressures prompted by new societal norms that demand frequent smartphone use.

Smith, the Pew researcher, sees these factors as extending to areas beyond work or leisure, as well. “Just like people struggle with that balance between whether or not to respond to the work email that comes in after they’ve left the office, they struggle with how long they can wait before they text their spouse back before their spouse gets annoyed or how long they can hold off on checking to see what happened with the terrorist attack in Brussels that Twitter just notified them about,” he said. “These things are surfacing.”

(c) 2016, The Washington Post · Karen Turner