Home » What is perceptual blindness, the risk we run by walking glued to our smartphone

What is perceptual blindness, the risk we run by walking glued to our smartphone

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What is perceptual blindness, the risk we run by walking glued to our smartphone

We live more and more with the head tilted downwards, intent on scrolling (scrolling, actually) social media, pages, apps. Distraction is becoming a social pathology.

Il New York Times talked about it again recently, starting from a series of data. The first: a recent study on college-age students found that a quarter of them remain glued to their phones when crossing crosswalks at intersections. The second one: another investigation, in some ways even more bizarre, instead highlighted that (when going about their business on their smartphone or engaged in conversation) participants were half as likely to notice a clown on a unicycle while walking down the street. Not exactly a daily and usual encounter. All this is causing what some experts call “perceptual blindness” caused by our distraction.

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“I don’t think people are aware of how distracted they are and how much their situational awareness changes when they walk and use the phone,” he explained Wayne Giang, professor of Engineering at the University of Florida who studied the link between phone use and injuries that occur while walking. It’s not just a matter of attention: this attitude also changes our mood, gait and posture. A mix of deadly psychophysical side effects which, as explained by the Times, simply makes more dangerous to go from one point to anotherbecause it creates obstacles that basically wouldn’t exist.

Let’s start with the walk: when we walk and use the phone at the same time, Giang explained to the New York newspaper, we reflexively adapt the way we move. Video footage of pedestrians used in the investigation has unsurprisingly shown that people using their phones walk about 10% slower than their non-distracted counterparts: “You see a series of changes in gait that reflect the slowing down – said added Patrick Crowley, a project manager at the Technical University of Denmark who studied the biomechanics of walking while using a phone – People take shorter steps and spend more time with both feet on the ground.” A big problem: for the traffic on the sidewalks, which gets clogged, but also for physical fitness. Yes, because walking is the first and most basic (but still effective) exercise to keep us fit: grazing by dragging ourselves along the street even makes that activity less useful for our health than it could be.

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It’s not enough: looking at a smartphone while walking (instead of stand in an upright position and with a straight back) can also increase the amount of load, or force, exerted on the muscles of the neck and upper back, which can contribute to the well-known symptoms of the so-called Text Neck. This is a label used to describe a series of disorders of the cervical vertebrae, of variable intensity and severity, caused by the prolonged use of the devices. A research published in the journal Gait & Posture explained that this situation could, in turn, reduce balance and increase the risk of tripping or falling. Same story with Text Crawl, i.e. nerve pain in the forearms.

Even mood is affected by this morbid relationship with technological devices. At the moment we don’t realize it at the moment, in fact maybe it immediately reassures us. But there is scientific evidence that using a phone while walking stresses us out. For example, research has proven this recording the levels of cortisol, the well-known stress hormone, in volunteers engaged in two simultaneous activities carried out on a treadmill. Another survey from last year instead examined the psychological effects of walking in a park while remaining glued to the phone or not: “Generally when people go for a walk they feel better, and this is what we saw in the group that walked without a phone, he explained Elizabeth Broadbent, one of the authors of the study and professor of health psychology at the University of Auckland, New Zealand. Too bad this didn’t happen for the most avid smartphone users: “In the groups of those who used the phone while walking, these effects were reversed. Instead of feeling better after walking, people they felt worse, that is, less excited, less happy, less relaxed”. Negative effects that experts connect, without too many surprises, to the fact that one isolates oneself and does not enjoy the environment in which one is immersed, which when natural is very good for mental health. In short: you still have to commit to disengaging, at least for a while.

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Finally, there are the real dangers of injuries of a certain severity. If almost everyone has a general awareness of the risks of walking while distracted by the phone, and in some cities around the world there are even regulations on the matter, studies (concludes the New York Times) have brought to light some surprising aspects. For example, the highest percentage of injuries of this type in the United States was concentrated in the age group between 11 and 20 years old. For her study, Giang examined the relationship between distraction on the phone on the street and access to the emergency room, recording 30 thousand injuries between 2011 and 2019. The majority of these accidents occurred on the street but a quarter occurred at home. Immediately after the very young, among the most injured are adults between 20 and 40 years old, perhaps due to greater use of digital devices compared to older people.

To avoid this inattentional blindness we must behave while walking just like we would in a car: you need to stop for a moment in safety, preferably out of the path of other pedestrians. And at least avoid doing it when you climb stairs, find yourself at crossings or walk on uneven surfaces: “Even alert and aware people get injured while walking – concluded Giang – If you are distracted by a phoneyou are definitely exposing yourself to some risk.”

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