Phone Walking Study Gains Traction

Maybe you’ve seen them around town or around campus: people strolling along, holding—but not actually using—their phones. Maybe you even do this yourself. If this seems like a new phenomenon to you, you’re right. And if you’ve wondered, “How many people actually do this?”, you’re not alone. Assistant Professor of Theoretical Physics James Unwin and Assistant Professor of Mathematics Laura Schaposnik conducted a study to find out just how common this behavior is.

The two researchers (who also are a married couple) took to a Paris neighborhood in 2017 to count the phone walkers—their term for people engaged in the behavior. Out of the roughly 3,000 adults they observed, 22 percent engaged in phone walking. Schaposnik and Unwin also found that phone walking is more common for lone individuals than for pairs, except when the pair is two women walking together. Forty percent of women in pairs were phone walking, compared to 18 percent of people walking in opposite-sex pairs and 24 percent of male pairs.

Since its publication last April, the study has gotten a lot of traction, and even been featured in the Chicago Tribune. The study has struck a chord because the question of how we interact with technology is an important one. Says Unwin, “Smartphones are still so new to society that people are trying to work out how to fit them into their lives. There are questions that are still being answered, such as: When is appropriate to give a smartphone to a child? How much time is it healthy to engage with a smartphone? What behaviors are unhealthy?”

While the phone walking study is tangential to Unwin’s primary work in theoretical particle physics, he and Schaposnik may replicate the study in Chicago or other U.S. cities. As to the question of whether Unwin ever phone walks: “I do catch myself phone walking, but I try not to.”