3 Things Not to Do While Texting

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 recent study, 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.

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Texting in Class

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.

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