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Published on July 14, 2020

Do you multi-task while using your smart phone?

Phone Safety

These days, if you engage in people-watching, what you’ll often see is people watching their phone. What they may not know is that the habit may be dangerous to their health.

According to a recent study published in the journal Jama Otolaryngology, the use of mobile phones is leading to injuries, some as minor as scraped knees and elbows, others far more significant like broken bones, traumatic brain injury and, in extreme cases, even death.

The authors of the study went so far as to call mobile phones “a necessary but potentially dangerous tool used by most people in the United States.”

Data taken between 1998 and 2017 from nearly 100 U.S. hospitals suggests that more than 2,500 patients were treated at emergency departments with injuries related to the use of mobile phones. Most telling is the fact that cases have risen since 2007, when the first smartphone was released.

One-third of the injuries were to the head and one-third to the face. The study estimated that more than half of the injuries in the cases collected over the course of the study were due to users being distracted while using their phone, with about 60 percent of those people being between ages 13 and 29. About half of those cases were the result of people using their phone while driving.

The study also revealed a few unusual injuries related to mobile phones. For example, a patient lying in bed suffered a broken nose when her phone slipped out of her hand and struck her in the face. In another case, a man was bitten by a snake as he walked through a park while looking at his phone.

Dangers of Multi-Tasking

It’s a common cliché that nothing is simpler than walking and chewing gum at the same time. But walking, talking and staring at your mobile phone? Not so much, says John Corsino, a physical therapist at Cape Cod Hospital.

“We see patients all the time with injuries because they are trying to multitask when they shouldn’t be,” he said. “Walking is so automatic to most of us, but it involves the integration of a lot of different body functions and cognitive processes and, in an open environment and an unpredictable place, it can demand really quick reactions and decision-making.

“If you have another task, like using a smartphone that is diverting your attention and takes a whole cognitive load of being in an unfamiliar environment and having to react to things, it can impact your performance, even for something as automatic as walking.”

As an inpatient physical therapist, Corsino treats patients related to their injury or illness that has caused their hospitalization. He has seen many instances of injuries caused when the person was trying to do too many things at one time, he said.

“I’ve seen situations where people are trying to do something where, in their judgment, it was reasonable to do, but it reduces their safety,” he said. “It’s such common sense that we remain focused on what we’re doing, and yet we’re so conditioned now to multitasking for the sake of efficiency.”

Some countries are taking steps that acknowledge the issue. In China, a stretch of pavement is reserved specifically for people who use their phone while walking, while in Salzburg, Austria airbags have been attached to lamp posts to send a clear message.

Corsino cautions people to prepare for the unexpected, especially when using their phone while walking. A telephone pole or tree that they don’t see can lead to a broken nose. An uneven stretch of pavement, a curb, or an icy patch of concrete can precipitate a fall. Even worse, a car appearing out of nowhere can lead to a more serious injury.

“In rehab we call it an open environment, where something unpredictable might happen,” he said. “It has different demands and a set of considerations. Obviously, driving and texting is a terrible choice, but it’s a lot less obvious to people that they should pay more attention to what they’re doing when they’re walking. That thinking is kind of below the radar because walking is so automatic.”