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Researchers wonder what it means when you keep your phone out without using it

Men are less likely to do it than women, and mixed-sex pairs least likely of all.

People of all ages and socioeconomic groups have incorporated smartphones into their everyday life, making them important tools in human relationships at home and at work. Not surprisingly, the smartphone revolution has also given rise to new human behaviors.

Today we learn about one of these thanks to the work of Laura Schaposnik and James Unwin at the University of Illinois at Chicago, who have discovered a previously unobserved phenomenon and begun to study it for the first time.

They call this new behavior “phone walking”; it involves holding a phone for long periods of time without actually using it. This turns out to be surprisingly common among pedestrians. But, curiously, men and women engage in it to significantly different degrees. Schaposnik and Unwin attempt to tease out why phone walkers exist at all and how the gender differences arise.

The researchers begin their work by studying over 3,000 adult pedestrians at six city center locations in Paris. Just over half the pedestrians were female, and the sample as a whole had an estimated average age of about 35.

The researchers observed each person for 20 to 30 meters, noting the pedestrians’ sex and whether they were alone, in a pair, or part of a larger group. They also noted whether they visibly carried a smartphone and, if so, whether they were using it. If not, this person was labeled a phone walker.

Schaposnik and Unwin then crunched the data to see what kind of patterns emerged.

The results make for interesting reading. Of the 3,038 adults they observed, 674 were phone walkers—a surprisingly large 22 percent of the total.

But there were significant differences between the sexes. In total, around 20 percent of men were phone walkers, compared with 33 percent of women.

More surprising is the way phone walking changed when men and women were paired with each other. 

Among people walking alone, 30 percent of the men were phone walkers, compared with 37 percent of the women. Among pairs of females, 40 percent were phone walkers; among male pairs, 24 percent displayed this behavior. However, phone walking was dramatically less common in mixed pairs: just 18 percent.

Indeed, the rate of phone walking among women dropped by almost 30 percent when they were accompanied by a man. The rate dropped by 23 percent for men accompanied by a woman.

Why the behavior among mixed couples so dramatically different? Schaposnik and Unwin have some ideas.

One important factor is likely to be whether the man and woman are a romantic couple. Previous research has shown that mixed-sex pedestrian couples are more likely to be in a relationship, and Schaposnik and Unwin suggest that this should have an impact on their phone-holding behavior.

The reason is that social pressures require people to respond to messages within specific time frames. “If one wants to be part of the constantly evolving conversation, mobile devices should be always ready to be used instantaneously,” say Schaposnik and Unwin. “Hence, there is a common need among people to make it clear to themselves, as well as to those observing them, that they are indeed available and ready to receive incoming communication.”

That would explain why so many people are phone walkers in the first place.

Studies suggest that romantic partners who send each other texts expect a reply within five minutes. But, of course, this pressure drops when the partners are both physically present.

This, say Schaposnik and Unwin, is why mixed couples show a much lower rate of phone walking. They simply do not need to keep checking their phones for a message from their partners. “Since some fraction of the same-sex pairs observed are also most likely in committed romantic relationships, this could also explain the drop in phone walking in single-sex pairs,” say the researchers.

The lower rate of phone walking may also be linked to another phenomenon—that people in stable romantic relationships are less interested in other relationships. “The observation that phone walking is less prevalent among mixed-sex pairs might be a specific example of a broader neglect of other relationships for people when in stable romantic relationships,” say Schaposnik and Unwin.

Other factors may also influence phone walking. The researchers point to the growing evidence that people can develop a psychological dependency on their phones. “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,” they say. Indeed, women are known to be more likely to develop this kind of dependency, which might explain the overall gender difference.

Another potential factor is security. Holding a phone makes it less likely to be stolen from a bag or pocket. It also demonstrates a potential connection to another human that could deter some kinds of criminals. “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,” say Schaposnik and Unwin.

And finally, there is the idea of smartphones as plumage that advertise a certain socioeconomic status. “By carrying a mobile device visible to the observers, even when not in use, humans are displaying their social status,” say the researchers. Indeed, such behavior might even be more subtle—perhaps showing that the phone walker is waiting for a message from a significant other and is therefore unavailable for romantic attachment.

That’s interesting work that throws the human condition into more carefully defined relief. 

There is plenty of work ahead, of course. The behavior of people in a big European city like Paris could be reasonably representative of those in relatively well-off Western societies. But it’s not hard to imagine that smartphones might play a different role in other societies, and that phone-walking patterns might be different there as well.

It might also be useful to ask phone walkers whether they are indeed in a relationship or not. Could it be that phone walking is becoming a kind of social plumage that indicates romantic status? Perhaps carrying a phone is equivalent, in some sense, to wearing a wedding ring.

There’s clearly more work to be done. And Schaposnik and Unwin will presumably be planning it now, while clutching their smartphones and waiting for text messages.

Ref: : The Phone Walkers: A Study Of Human Dependence On Inactive Mobile Devices

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