Texting can make you walk funny, say scientists

Tapping out a text message while walking can make you weave, dawdle, and maybe even topple over, new research indicates. 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor
Commuters text as they walk into and out of South Station at the end of the workday in the financial district in July 2010.

If you're reading this on your phone while walking right now, please give this article a very close and thorough read. Take a moment to mentally block out anything that might possibly distract you, and just focus on the words on the screen.

There. Notice how you walked into that lamp post? Science can now explain that.

A team led by University of Queensland researcher Siobhan Schabrun filmed people walking while using their phones and then analyzed their gaits using movement analysis software. The results: if you're fiddling with your smartphone while walking, you're more likely to dawdle, weave, and possibly even lose your balance.

Common sense, of course, will tell you that using your phone while walking will make you walk funny. But it takes scientists to tell you precisely how much it makes you walk funny.

To that end, Dr. Schabrun and her team had 26 subjects walk a straight line of 8.5 meters (about 28 feet) while sending a text message, reading text on the screen, and not using a phone at all. Each subject had reflective markers stuck to various parts of their bodies and was filmed with eight motion-capture cameras.

The team found those who texted tended to walk more slowly and deviate from the line. To keep their phones steady, these perambulating texters would also tend to move their arms and heads in sync with their chests, causing their heads to wobble side to side. Those who read text on their screens performed these silly walks too, but not as much.  

"Texting, and to a lesser extent reading, on your mobile phone affects your ability to walk and balance," said Schabrun in a press release. "This may impact the safety of people who text and walk at the same time."

"Texting and Walking: Strategies for Postural Control and Implications for Safety" appears in the current issue of the journal PLoS One.

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