Taking on the Digitally Distracted Smartphone Zombies
One man’s crusade to tackle the norms of phubbing and distracted walking
It’s no secret that most people can’t handle their technology.
Take digital watches. Back in 1978, author Douglas Adams commented that the earth’s “ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.” As a child at the time, I took umbrage with his statement, mostly because I was a tech geek who loved my digital watch with its seven different tunes and an hourly “signal” alarm. But then the general public starting buying digital watches without actually reading the instructions. An entire generation couldn’t be bothered to turn off their hourly signal, which became a problem in churches, synagogues, lecture halls, and movie theaters when everyone’s alarm would beep loudly within a standard deviation of the hour.
“He told me enough. It was you who killed him.”
“No, I am your father!”
“No. No, that’s not true! That’s impossible!”
“Beep-beep” “Beep-beep” “Beep-beep.” Pause. “Beep-beep.”
By the time Steve Jobs revealed the Apple iPhone in 2007, our society was doomed. Snubbing the world around us had become the norm. In fact, in 2012, the Macquarie Dictionary, the standard reference of Australian English, joined the words “phone” and “snubbing” to create the new word “phubbing.” Phubbing described paying more attention to one’s mobile phone than to the people around us, even if the phone had not rung or vibrated. Phubbing became the focus of many sociological and psychological studies, most of which warned us that we were destroying all personal relationships.
For example, a 2015 study at Baylor University found that 46% of survey respondents reported being phubbed by a partner and 23% reported that phubbing caused conflict in their relationships. The authors commented that, “the more often a couple’s time spent together is interrupted by one individual attending to his/her cellphone, the less likely it is that the other individual is satisfied in the overall relationship.” A 2018 study at the University of Kent had students view a three-minute animation in which they imagined themselves as part of a two-person conversation in which their partner either phubbed them extensively, partially, or not at all. The study found that phubbing negatively affected mood and threatened the “four fundamental needs” of belongingness, self-esteem, meaningful existence, and control. A 2019 scientific literature review of phubbing behavior revealed that phubbing heightened feelings of jealousy between partners, weakened social bonds, lowered relationship satisfaction, and increased rates of depression.
Phubbing is not just the result of a society with a new toy, but rather a predictable behavior that can be scientifically modeled. Researchers at Keynes College at the University of Kent developed a model that not only predicted the likelihood of phubbing, but the likelihood of it becoming the norm. In their model, phubbing and the perceived normalization of this behavior is predicted by smartphone addiction, which is in turn predicted by Internet addiction, fear of missing out, and lack of self-control. Furthermore, researchers in Malaysia negatively associated phubbing behavior in undergraduate students to two traits in the Big Five Personality Test: emotional stability and intellect/imagination. A separate Turkish study negatively associated phubbing with emotional stability and conscientiousness. The more neurotic, conventional, and impulsive a person, the more likely they are to phub their neighbor.
The research is certainly not surprising. Early in this century, I was already aware that phubbing would become normative behavior when I watched couples walk side-by-side completely ignoring each other in favor of a third party on the phone. Decades later, getting my own children to put away their smart phones at the dinner table became an exercise in futility. But then I discovered a more disturbing trend: phubbing behavior was not a static pursuit. People were completely distracted while walking. And they were almost always walking slowly and blocking my path.
At first, I thought it was my imagination, but the science backed me up. A 2018 study in the journal Transportation Research Record used automated video analysis to examine the movements and walking behavior of pedestrians at a busy four-way intersection in British Columbia. They found that more than a third of the pedestrians were distracted by their cellphones, and the distracted pedestrians had more trouble maintaining their walking speed and gait. Those who were texting or reading took shorter steps without slowing their step frequency, whereas those who were talking on their phones took slower steps without changing the length of their strides. In both cases, the distracted walkers moved more slowly.
Personally, I find distracted walking even more annoying than phubbing. Pre-pandemic, I traveled through airports extensively, and I prided myself in my ability to get from terminal to terminal as quickly as possible. I preferred to spend more of my time sitting peacefully at the gate with my snack, my book, and/or my YouTube videos and less of my time stuck behind a person walking while reading their email.
Eventually, it got so bad, that I decided to wage a one-man war against distracted walking. I became a personal crusader for a greater sense of societal proximal awareness. I did this by playing “Phubber Chicken.”
The goal of Phubber Chicken was to start walking slowly but purposefully toward a distracted smartphone zombie from at least 20 feet away. I walked in a straight line at a constant speed to see how close I could get to the victim before they looked up in time to avoid a collision. Timing was everything. Most people would glance up every couple of seconds, giving themselves enough time to swerve away from me. Occasionally, however, someone would look up only when my shadow loomed over their smartphone, and they would stare into my eyes with a look of bewilderment and mild panic. It was immensely satisfying.
I honestly don’t know if I was changing any societal behaviors, but Phubber Chicken at least removed some of the frustration at being stuck behind commuters blocking my path, store clerks checking their phones before helping me out, and pedestrians taking their lives in their hands as they crossed the street in front of my car.
And then the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
Not only was I no longer traveling through crowds, but the general principle of steering into people completely violated the more important practice of social distancing. My social experiment had to be put on hold. Encouraging proximal awareness became much less important than encouraging physical isolation, wearing masks, washing hands, pushing for vaccinations, and fighting misinformation on public forums.
Not only that, but the constant stress of 2020 with its COVID-19 pandemic, associated deaths, social isolation, economic downturn, national reckoning on race, racial justice protests, white nationalist counter-protests, constant lies from the previous administration, and murder hornets encouraged Americans to find a distraction, any distraction to get them through. If there was ever a time to bury one’s face in a smartphone, it was last year.
But the winds of change are blowing. The FDA approved both Pfizer and Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccines, and NIAID Director Dr. Anthony Fauci has hinted that we may be back to some semblance of normality by this Fall. Despite the sluggish rollout of the vaccination program, I am blindly optimistic that President Biden can make good on his pledge to administer 1 million shots per day and reach 70% herd immunity by April 2022.
When that happens, our masks will come off, we will gather in crowds, and maybe once again we will talk to each other in person. But when that happens, if I see you staring at your phone while walking, I’m walking into you. You may be my first Phubber Chicken victim in years.
No quarter will be asked. Or given.