Earbuds and iPhones are as common as backpacks on campus sidewalks, but the modern student pedestrian is more an accessory to his smartphone than the other way around. Music and social media might help with the mundane walk to class, but plugging in for the stroll won’t add the pep to your step you might expect.
Listening to music or using your phone while walking reduces your situational awareness — the ability to sense and react to your surroundings. The consequences range from embarrassing (a teenager fell into a sewer manhole while texting in New York City) to fatal: 4735 pedestrians died in 2013 because they were distracted by their phone.
A study in Gait and Posture found that people miss nearly half of their visual field when engaged with their phone. The journal of Accident Analysis and Prevention demonstrated that college students are more likely to be hit by traffic when listening to music or using a phone and that the number of phone-related pedestrian injuries has even eclipsed texting-and-driving ones.
“Phone zombies” also make great targets for pickpockets and criminals, according to Campus Safety magazine. When our senses are preoccupied with music and a screen, we have little room to process what’s happening to us and those in our vicinity.
But our aversion to walking phone-free impacts more than just crime rates. “Those little devices in our pockets are so psychologically powerful that they don't only change what we do,” says MIT professor of Social Studies of Science and Technology Sherry Turkle, “they change who we are.” And she’s right — we are becoming a society that plugs in to tune out.
Smartphone congregations gather at the bus stop consumed by the zeros and ones streaming into their ears, together but alone. Students shuffle along the crosswalk in a stupor, heads bent and thumbs tapping. Engaging with a person on a phone or listening to music is awkward, if not taboo. We all know what it feels like to recover from a greeting that falls on preoccupied ears.
Our smartphone habits keep us entertained, but with the heavy price of our safety and social skills. So the next time you notice one of those indiscreet aural rebels blaring obnoxious music from a backpack speaker, don’t give him your usual stinkeye — at least he’s cut the cord.
Schmidt is a physics and aerospace engineering sophomore from Austin. Follow him on Twitter @heyjakers.