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'Twalking' is the most common cause of tech-related injuries

In an age where smartphones are nearly ubiquitous, particularly among college-aged individuals, a pressing question arises: does texting while walking, or ‘twalking,’ increase the likelihood of accidents?

This topic has sparked debate among experts, with some research indicating heightened risk and others suggesting that young adults are adept multitaskers.

However, few studies have examined how texters respond to unpredictable hazards. Recent research indicates that texting increases the risk of falling in response to walkway hazards, highlighting the potential dangers of this seemingly innocuous behavior.

How to study ‘twalking’

Senior author Matthew A. Brodie, a neuroscientist and engineer at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) Graduate School of Biomedical Engineering, recognized the prevalence of ‘twalking’ and embarked on a study to investigate its inherent risks.

“On any day it seems as many as 80% of people, both younger and older, may be head down and texting. I wondered: is this safe?” says Brodie.

“This has made me want to investigate the dangers of texting while walking. I wanted to know if these dangers are real or imagined and to measure the risk in a repeatable way.”

The team recruited 50 undergraduate students from Brodie’s “Mechanics of the Human Body” UNSW course to participate in the experiment.

Special ‘twalking’ runway created

Brodie and co-author Yoshiro Okubo designed a special walkway at Neuroscience Research Australia’s gait laboratory, which featured a tile that could be intentionally displaced, causing participants to slip.

To ensure safety, the students wore harnesses that prevented actual falls, while motion sensors collected data on their movements.

They traversed a simulated walkway equipped with a movable tile mimicking a slipping hazard, akin to stepping on a banana peel.

Equipped with a safety harness and motion sensors, participants navigated this walkway both with and without texting the phrase, “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.”

What the team discovered

The study revealed that individuals responded differently to the threat of slipping. “What surprised me is how differently people responded,” Brodie remarks.

“Some were more cautious, while others sped up. This diversity in behavior underscores that no two individuals are alike, suggesting the need for multiple strategies to prevent accidents related to texting and walking.”

Despite these varied responses, motion data showed that texting participants remained at an increased risk of falling.

When participants transitioned from leaning forward (such as when using a phone) to slipping backward, their motion sensors indicated a significant increase in the range of their “trunk angle.”

Additionally, the accuracy of texters decreased during walking, even when caution was exercised against a potential slip that did not occur.

The highest texting accuracy was observed when participants were seated, highlighting the challenges posed by multitasking while in motion. The lowest accuracy, unsurprisingly, occurred when participants did slip.

Implications and recommendations

The study emphasizes that young people may be more prone to taking risks, like ‘twalking,” even when they are aware of the potential dangers associated with texting and walking.

As a result, the effectiveness of traditional educational initiatives, such as signs, may be limited in addressing this population.

In light of these findings, the researchers propose the implementation of locking technology on phones, similar to the measures used for preventing distracted driving.

This technology could detect walking activity and activate a screen lock to prevent texting during that time. While this intervention shows promise, further research is needed to evaluate its effectiveness.

Conclusions about ‘twalking’

The study provides compelling evidence that texting while walking increases the risk of falling in response to hazardous conditions.

While some individuals may adopt cautious approaches, it doesn’t fully mitigate the danger posed by distractions. Furthermore, the decrease in texting accuracy during walking underscores the limitations of multitasking in this context.

In summary, as society becomes increasingly dependent on smartphones and the prevalence of texting while walking rises, it is crucial to acknowledge and address the risks associated with this behavior.

By raising awareness and implementing technological interventions, we can better protect people from harm and promote responsible mobile phone use.

The full study was published in the journal Heliyon.


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