Shot of pretty young woman crossing the street while listen to music with the wireless earphones. Source: iStock.com/nensuria

Smartphone use: Keep your head up – for your digital wellbeing

21. June 2021 Published by Jana Greyling

Smartphone use: We all know the story of Johnny Look-in-the-Air:

“As he trudg’d along to school,
It was always Johnny’s rule
To be looking at the sky
And the clouds that floated by;
But what just before him lay,
In his way,
Johnny never thought about;
So that everyone cried out –
“Look at little Johnny there,
Little Johnny Head-In-Air!”

Running just in Johnny’s way,
Came a little dog one day;
Johnny’s eyes were still astray
Up on high,
In the sky;
And he never heard them cry –
“Johnny, mind, the dog is nigh!”
What happens now?
Down they fell, with such a thump,
Dog and Johnny in a lump!

Back in 1844 when the physician Dr. Heinrich Hoffmann wrote the story of Johnny in his Struwwelpeter, there were no smartphones. But if Johnny were to be beamed into our age, he would definitely have one in his hands. And he wouldn’t look into the air while walking, but at his smartphone, engrossed in Facebooking, whatsapping or watching videos. But the outcome would be the same: He’d fall over the dog or stumble into a river. He might even hop like a bunny and people would cry out: Look, there’s Johnny the smombie.

Which brings us to the subject of this blog post: If you’re someone whose gaze is fixed on your smartphone while walking, you may be moving with the times – but it’s dangerous to you and others. Unless you already have “Watch your Step with Heads Up” from Google on it. But first things first. Let’s start with the hopping.

It’s not a joke, but the result of intensive investigation: Scientists from the Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge, England, found in a study that people who use their smartphone while walking start hopping. Yes, you’ve read right. Pedestrians using their mobile phone apparently look like a rabbit. That’s because the way they walk changes. According to the study, they adapt their gait, applying a special skipping technique to avoid stumbling over obstacles. The test persons also adopted a sort of preventive safety strategy: They raised their lead foot higher and more slowly over an obstacle in order not to trip over. Mobile phone users have a far slower avoidance response to obstacles. Their foot reacts 40 percent more slowly than that of non-mobile phone users.

When we use our mobile phone while walking, we adopt a precautionary mechanism by changing our gait. And that makes it seem like we’re hopping like a bunny. But that not only looks funny – it can also result in painful injuries and accidents due to our lack of attention. “The big risk here is suddenly-appearing hazards [like] a pedestrian suddenly walking in front of you,” said Matthew Timmis, one of the study’s co-authors, to the British newspaper The Guardian. “You are not going to be able to respond to that as efficiently, which increases the risk of injury,” added Timmis.

Beware of smombies

Now that we’ve explained the hopping bunnies bit, let’s move on to smombies. The term denotes a smartphone zombie – people who find it difficult to keep their eyes off their mobile phone screen and, oblivious to their environment, are engrossed in messaging and using social media apps. It’s a blend of “smartphone” and “zombies” and was chosen as the “Youth Word of the Year” in 2015 in Germany by a jury as part of a competition run by the Langenscheidt publishing house.

The Japanese have coined the term aruki sumaho for that. It’s a combination of the words “aruku” (walk) and “smartphone.” It results in dangerous situations every day, especially in large cities with their cramped spaces. Tokyo’s fire department even records statistics on it.

MA city in Japan soon wants to ban the risk from people who only have eyes for their smartphone and so don’t heed the surrounding people and traffic. The local council of Yamato near to the capital Tokyo introduced a law in the city assembly to ban smartphone use while walking. “The number of people using smartphones has rapidly increased and so have the number of accidents,” said Masaaki Yasumi from the council to the AFP news agency, adding that Yamato wanted to be the first city in Japan to impose such a ban so as to prevent these types of accident. Japan’s “Sputnik News” reported a 40 percent rise in the number of accidents caused by mobile phone use over a period of five years. There were 2,790 such accidents in 2018.

Yamato isn’t the first city to take action like that. In Honolulu on the U.S. island of Hawaii, looking at your smartphone while walking is prohibited. A fine awaits anyone breaching the regulation: 35 dollars for a first-time offense, 75 dollars the second time, and a hefty 99 dollars for the third violation. In Montclair City in California, it’s even illegal to wear over-the-ear headphones while crossing the street.

Uwe Janssens, President of the German Interdisciplinary Association for Intensive Care and Emergency Medicine (DIVI) in Berlin, concurs that pedestrians distracted by their smartphone are a huge risk to themselves and others. “A smartphone now buzzes or beeps all the time for some reason or other or because there’s apparently something interesting you should know” – an “incredible distraction for road users.”

Smartphone use: Congestion on the pedestrian crossing

In the experiment people with a yellow cap had a mobile phone in their hand. Source: Hisashi Murakami, Kyoto Institute of Technology; University of Tokyo

Japanese scientists have investigated, for example, how much smombies slow down normal pedestrians. Hisashi Murakami from the University of Tokyo and his team actually conduct research into self-organization in human crowds. That can be observed at the entrances to train platforms, for example: Although the people don’t know or speak to each other, their movements often seem organized and coordinated. They walk on the right, the slow ones on the side, the fast ones in the middle, someone jumps into a gap, while another anticipates a collision and steps aside as a precaution. If there are just a handful of people glued to their mobile phone, the flow is disrupted. For the purposes of the experiment, the people causing the disruption were placed alternately at the front, center and end. The greatest impact according to the scientists was when people with their mobile phone were at the front. They slowed down the entire crowd the greatest there and it took the longest time for people to form tracks that ensured a good flow.

Using the mobile phone can result in serious accidents, not only when you’re behind the wheel of a car, but if you’re a pedestrian. “Take trams, for example. They’re becoming quieter and less audible and so are a danger for people distracted by their smartphone,” says Meike Jipp, Director of the Institute of Transport Research at the German Aerospace Center (DLR) in Berlin. “Some cities have now introduced warning signs – and put them on the ground specifically so that they can be seen by mobile phone users.” A particularly critical aspect to bear in mind is that more and more inaudible e-bikes, e-scooters and e-cars will be on our roads and sidewalks in the future. Smombies with noise-canceling headphones will then definitely be living dangerously.

You’re safe on foot? Don’t bet on it!

According to a study by Allianz entitled “Sicher zu Fuß” (“Safe on Foot”), two-thirds of pedestrians phone, 35 percent read texts or view photos and videos and 43 percent write messages regularly while walking. Almost half (45 percent) also use them while crossing the road. According to the study’s authors, the scale on which mobile phone use is to blame for accidents in Germany is still not clear. However, there is very obviously a link between pedestrians focused on their phone and critical situations and accidents.

Walking lanes for smombies

Some cities have responded to the hopping bunnies and smombies and launched special lanes for them along the lines of cycle paths. Anyone on such a “text walking lane” can be sure that they won’t bump into anything or get in someone’s way.

A university in the U.S. set up a text lane for students using a smartphone some years ago. And it’s not alone: Walking lanes for smartphone junkies have even been spotted in China, and Antwerp has one. There’s also a 300-meter-long phone lane in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania. The “tech-aware” sidewalk is separated from its normal counterpart by a thick pink stripe. The snag: The barrier-free path has been rarely used so far. After all, anyone who loses track of time and space because they’re in the process of having to send an important message will very likely fail to notice the special marking on the ground.

A city in South Korea, which has the world’s highest smartphone penetration rate, has installed flickering lights and laser beams at a road crossing to warn smartphone zombies to look up and pay attention to the traffic. It also tells drivers to slow down so that accidents are prevented. In addition to red, yellow and blue LED lights on the pavement, smartphone users are sent an alert by an app that they are about to step onto a zebra crossing and should watch out for traffic.

“Heads Up” feature from Google coming soon for Android?

Now let’s come to Google’s “Heads Up” feature. The company intends to take up the issue of smombies pretty soon and counter the problem with a new “Digital Wellbeing” feature, according to the English website xda-developers.com. The feature is intended initially for Pixel smartphones only, but it’s foreseeable that it will soon be distributed to all Android devices. Its aim, of course, is to ensure that users don’t keep their eyes on their smartphone display, but on the road, the sidewalk or simply on their next steps. A signal is intended to warn them to look up and snap out of their smombie state.

It works as follows: As soon as your smartphone notices you walking, and you are actively using it, a warning is triggered. You can see how the feature is implemented from the following screenshots. If it is activated and detects a smombie, a warning message is displayed.

The app itself is probably pretty simple, but the crux is naturally using it in practice: How do you define exceptions? What apps are allowed to be used, can secure locations be defined and what does such a warning look like? Phoning (as a pedestrian) is perhaps a distraction, but nowhere near as dangerous as when you’re using social networks or other services. As usual, it’s likely to be the case that users have to explicitly activate this feature. Anyone receiving a barrage of warnings is likely to disable it very soon – and that also goes for people who don’t put down their smartphone and deactivate the classic Digital Wellbeing features again. It seems the feature is only being rolled out for Pixel smartphones at present and might well be offered exclusively to begin with.

No general ban on using a mobile phone while walking

Pedestrians in Germany can take out their mobile phone, phone and read and reply to SMSs when they like. The country’s Road Traffic Regulations don’t impose any restrictions on that. Nevertheless, their Section 1 also applies to pedestrians using a mobile phone: “Constant care and vigilance and mindfulness of others are required when using the roads.” It goes without saying that pedestrians must heed that. The regulation also states: “Road users must act in such a way so as not to damage or endanger others and not hinder or harass others more than is unavoidable in the circumstances.” Taking this basic principle strictly, you can assume that it’s an offense if you hinder other road users because you’re doing something on your smartphone. Pedestrians can therefore be fined between five and ten euros if they violate their duty to show due care and diligence.

What conclusion can we draw from this post? If you run around with your eyes lowered and glued to your mobile phone, you miss out on the beautiful sides of real life.

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