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Study: We Never Stop Touching Our Phones, Even When They’re Off

About a third of us walk while holding our smartphones when we’re not using them. Now researchers are asking why.

Study: We Never Stop Touching Our Phones, Even When They’re Off
[Photo: Clique Images/Unsplash]

Thirty percent of men walk down the street alone with a smartphone in their hand, and that number jumps to 37% when observing women. But when men and women walk together, the number plummets to just 18%. Perhaps we’d rather hold hands than hold phones?

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These new numbers are courtesy of University of Illinois researchers Laura Schaposnik and James Unwin, who studied over 3,000 people walking with their phones–not in use, but passively clutched in their hands–across Paris. Their new paper, titled The Phone Walkers: A study of human dependence on inactive mobile devices and highlighted by MIT Technology Review, is but one of several to come, and it raises more questions than it answers. That said, those questions are fascinating to consider all the same. Why do we hold our phones when we aren’t actually using them? Cross-referencing the last two decades of phone research with their new data in hand, the academics propose four plausible reasons that pedestrians practice this behavior.

The first proposal is that we simply need immediate access to our phones now–not just because of the constant push notifications, but because so much of our social lives exist on the phone. In particular, research suggests that people in romantic relationships expect to be texted back within five minutes. Five minutes! That means a phone left in your bag during a coffee run could cost you a life partner! If we keep our phones out to appease partners, it might begin to explain why men and women walking together had their phones out less often than any other studied group (like men walking with men, or women walking with women). The researchers admit, however, that they’re reading a lot into the dynamics of perceived gender, and same-sex relationships may confound some of this logic.

[Photo: Andre Benz/Unsplash]

The second thought was that we might be psychologically dependent on these phones to the point that we have anxiety if we’re separated from them. “Thus it is quite conceivable that the simple manipulation of the object could lead to a corresponding decrease in tension or anxiety compared to when the phone is stored in a bag or pocket,” the researchers write.

Personal safety is another distinct possibility. Research has found that technology gives young people confidence when facing the potential dangers of crime in a public place. “Then, it seems quite plausible that individuals may hold their phones both for personal reassurance against perceived threats, and as a visible warning sign to potential assailants,” the researchers write. They also point out that holding a phone might simply prevent it from being pickpocketed.

Finally, we might want to impress one another with our fancy phones–which is why the researchers believe our social appearance may have something to do with it. They liken the phenomenon with “displays of affluence by wearing designer fashion clothes or jewelry: Ultimately, the aim of such displays is typically thought to enhance or affirm a person’s social standing and to attract a suitable mate.” That’s right, the tech bro with the iPhone X and AirPods may actually be trying to impress you!

All of these explanations seem to ring at least a bit true, don’t they? Even still, I can’t help but wonder if they overlooked another possible reason so many people hold their phones: The fact that smartphones keep getting bigger. The phenomenon is having a measurable impact on our environment, and Google is even updating large swaths of its user interface guidelines to accommodate the shift. “In all instances observed, the phone walkers had bags or suitably large pockets in which devices could be stored if desired, thus it is understood that individuals were not carrying their phones in their hand out of necessity,” the researchers insist.

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Perhaps it’s not out of necessity, but when you consider ergonomics and simple human factors, it seems reasonable that this supersized industrial design may still be influencing our behavior all the same. The Pixel 2 XL technically fits in my back pocket, but it’s neither comfortable nor all that secure during a brisk walk. And shoving a $1,000 phablet into a purse isn’t something that I imagine most women would want to do more times in a day than necessary, simply because it’s a pain. Stored in a backpack, who has the time to unzip and pull out a phone 150 times a day? It’s not like putting your phone in a bag or pocket will make us need it any less.

In other words, social psychology may explain a lot of why we’re obsessed with walking phone in hand. However, that doesn’t mean we should ignore the possible influence of industrial design on our psyche, and how tweaking that design might give us back a free hand with which to hold another.

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About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company. He started Philanthroper.com, a simple way to give back every day

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