Texting Makes You Walk Like a Clumsy Robot

man texting while walking
Texting while walking is an all-too common occurrence. (Image credit: Monkey Business Images | Shutterstock.com)

Texting makes people walk funny, which could make them more prone to accidents, new research suggests.

When texting, walkers change their posture to keep their upper body fairly rigid in order to keep the screen in their field of view, a new study published today (Jan. 22) in the journal PLOS ONE reveals. The result? People veer off course.

"Obviously deviating from a straight line is very bad if you're walking close to traffic," said study co-author Siobhan Schabrun, a physical therapy researcher at the University of Western Sydney in Australia. [9 Odd Ways Tech Devices May Injure You]

Taken together, the findings suggest texting while walking can be very risky. 

Distracting process

With smartphones everywhere, more and more people text throughout the day. By now, the hazards of texting while driving are well known, but the impact of texting while walking, which takes place at much lower speeds, seemed less clear.

Still, a few anecdotal reports suggest texting while walking isn't a great idea. In December, a tourist in Australia accidentally walked off a pier and fell into the ocean while checking Facebook on her phone, the BBC reported. (Though she couldn't swim, she managed to float for 20 minutes, with phone in hand, until she was rescued.) In addition, a 2012 study detailed in the journal Gait & Posture revealed that texting can disrupt a person's gait and inhibit working memory..

To see how texting affected people, Schabrun and her colleagues asked 26 young, healthy volunteers with an average age of 30 to walk across a long hallway while texting, reading something on their phone, or doing nothing. The participants were frequent texters and were told to just walk and text as they normally would.

Several cameras tracked their movements, and reflective markers on their bodies tracked the position of different body segments as they walked.

Texting dramatically altered their posture.

"People when they're texting on the phone walk more like a robot," Schabrun told LiveScience. "Because they need to keep their phone steady in their field of vision, they lock all their body segments."

Other studies, mostly in elderly people, have shown that a stiff gait makes trips and falls more likely.

The researchers also noticed the texters veered off a straight course more often than participants who were doing nothing. The same problems cropped up while reading messages on a mobile phone, but to a much lesser extent, Schabrun said.

Be aware

In addition, 35 percent of the texting group told the researchers they had already tripped or bumped into somebody or something while texting and walking in their everyday lives.

"That's quite high for a generation that is supposedly so proficient with our phones, and supposedly so good at multitasking," Schabrun said.

Beyond changes in posture and gait, texting while walking may be dangerous simply because it's distracting. Other studies have found that in virtual environments, pedestrians looking at their phones got into more collisions with virtual vehicles than those who were not, Schabrun said. And several studies have found that people are bad at multitasking in general.

Technologies, such as see-through phones that allow people to see traffic around them, or text dictation could conceivably help, but they need to be tested to see if they actually make pedestrians safer, Schabrun said.

In the meantime, "when you're in those high-risk environments you need to stop, look and listen, and be careful," Schabrun said.

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Tia Ghose
Managing Editor

Tia is the managing editor and was previously a senior writer for Live Science. Her work has appeared in Scientific American, Wired.com and other outlets. She holds a master's degree in bioengineering from the University of Washington, a graduate certificate in science writing from UC Santa Cruz and a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Texas at Austin. Tia was part of a team at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that published the Empty Cradles series on preterm births, which won multiple awards, including the 2012 Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism.