In September, a woman in Alaska plunged 60 feet down a
seaside cliff while texting
as she walked near the edge. Maria Pestrikoff reportedly landed on the
rocks below with a cold tide rolling in. Fortunately, the quick action of
emergency responders saved her. But it was a dramatic example of what can
happen when people mix walking and texting.
You hear a lot about the dangers of texting and driving—and
for good reason. Drivers who text behind the wheel are 23
times more likely to crash than drivers who aren’t distracted, according to
the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
But there are a number of other things you probably
shouldn’t do while texting. (Hint: Strolling up to the edge of a cliff is near
the top of the list.)
Texting and Walking
The hazards of walking and texting are well documented. In a
researchers from the University of Alabama at Birmingham asked college students
to play pedestrians in a computer simulation of a street scene. Those
distracted by texting or listening to music were more likely to be hit by a vehicle
while crossing the virtual street.
Obviously, not watching where you’re going can get you into
trouble. But there’s more to it than that. The combination of walking and
texting also uses more of your mental resources than, say, walking and chewing
gum. You could be so preoccupied that you experience what psychologists call
“inattentional blindness.” This simply means looking at something—an oncoming
truck, for example—but failing to register it because your mind is elsewhere.
The crucial role of attention was neatly illustrated by another study. A research
team at Stony Brook University asked volunteers to first look at a target on
the floor about 26 feet ahead. Then, with their view of the floor blocked, the
volunteers tried to walk straight to the target by memory. Those who also
texted during the task walked slower and veered farther off course than those
who didn’t text. So even in a situation that was rigged so that nobody could see where they were going,
texters were still at a disadvantage when walking.
Texting might help you survive a boring class or meeting, but
it may also hamper your ability to get anything out of the experience. In recent
research, college students who texted frequently in class had more trouble
paying attention to lectures—a prereq for learning from them.
Fang-Yi Flora Wei, PhD, the study’s lead author and an
assistant professor of broadcast communications at the University of Pittsburgh
at Bradford, notes that students may believe they’re doing just fine by
multitasking. Research, unfortunately, suggests otherwise. There may be limits
to how well the brain can learn when constantly switching back and forth
between two information-processing tasks, such as texting and listening.
Texting at the Table
Questions of etiquette aside, texting at the dinner table
isn’t the best way to enjoy a meal with others. It keeps you from giving your
full attention to your dining companions, and that may mean you’re losing out
on the healthy benefits of social time.
In a study
of families with a child who had asthma, when family meals were
characterized by lots of lively, interested conversation, the child’s symptoms
were more likely to be well controlled. But when mealtimes were full of
distractions such as texting, the child’s asthma tended to be worse. In short,
it seemed that sharing a family meal helped boost kids’ well-being, but only
when people paid attention to each other rather than to their phones.