By Meera Jagannathan, MarketWatch
Look alive, America — your haphazard cellphone use could land you in the emergency room.
People putting themselves at risk to take selfies has received a lot of media attention. But people are putting their health at risk with far more mundane tasks. The incidence of head and neck injuries related to cellphone use has risen steadily over the past two decades, according to a new study from researchers at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School in Newark, with major increases observed after 2007, coinciding with the introduction of Apple’s /zigman2/quotes/202934861/composite AAPL -6.54% pioneering iPhone.
An Apple spokeswoman referred MarketWatch to safety information on the iPhone : “Repetitive motion When you perform repetitive activities such as typing, swiping, or playing games on iPhone, you may experience discomfort in your hands, arms, wrists, shoulders, neck, or other parts of your body. If you experience discomfort, stop using iPhone and consult a physician.”
‘Your phone’s not just a phone anymore. Now people are literally just staring at their screens as they’re walking down Park Avenue.’
As this guide suggests, researchers say that people rather than smartphones are the real problem. “There’s clearly a significant increase in cellphone-associated injuries, which signals that as a population, we are distracted,” study co-author Boris Paskhover, a Rutgers assistant professor of facial plastics and reconstructive surgery, told MarketWatch. “We’re not just distracted driving — we’re distracted walking.”
The study, published in the latest edition of the peer-reviewed journal JAMA Otolaryngology-Head & Neck Surgery , analyzed a sample of 2,501 reported emergency-department cases — translating to 76,043 estimated weighted cases — collected by the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System between January 1998 and December 2017. The cases were all specifically related to a cellphone.
Using narrative descriptions of these events, the researchers chalked up 14,150 estimated weighted cases to distraction — 7,240 of which happened when someone used a cellphone while driving, 5,080 of which occurred when someone used a cellphone while walking, and 1,022 of which happened when someone was texting.
The authors found that 41% of reported incidents happened at home, with patients in 94% of cases being either treated and released, or released without treatment. Patients were most likely to have a head injury, followed by facial injury and neck injury. Laceration was the most common diagnosis, followed by contusion or abrasion and internal organ injury.
The smartphone-app game Pokémon Go — the augmented-reality craze of 2016 that prompted safety concerns at the time — played a role in some 90 of the 5,080 estimated cases of people using a cellphone while walking, the authors wrote. (Pokémon Go developer Niantic Labs did not respond to request for comment. Niantic and the Pokémon Co. told MarketWatch in 2016 that they “encourage all people playing Pokémon Go to be aware of their surroundings and to play with friends when going to new or unfamiliar places.”)
Americans’ phone use has evolved over the past decade, Paskhover said. “Your phone’s not just a phone anymore,” he said. “Now people are literally just staring at their screens as they’re walking down Park Avenue.”
Injuries linked to cellphone distraction were most likely to happen among the 13 to 29 crowd. Those younger than 13 were more likely to have a ‘direct mechanical injury.’
Paskhover and his co-authors also found variations across age groups: Injuries linked to cellphone distraction were most likely to happen among the 13-to-29-year-old crowd, while kids younger than 13 were more likely to have a “direct mechanical injury” from a cellphone than to have an injury associated with cellphone use.
Meanwhile, injury associated with cellphone use was more likely than “direct mechanical injury” among both people aged 50 to 64 and those 65 and older — an age group that’s “already prone to more trips and falls,” Paskhover noted.
Paskhover thinks cellphone-associated injuries could be “severely underreported,” he said, as people involved in such incidents may be reluctant to admit the connection due to legal or insurance implications.
Also see: How your iPhone could save your life
Pedestrian deaths in the U.S. have spiked in recent years, according to a report published in February by the nonprofit Governors Highway Safety Association , rising 35% between 2008 and 2017. The authors pointed to several factors, including an increasing preference for SUVs and light trucks and population growth in some cities and states. Smartphone use, they added, “can be a significant source of distraction for all road users.”
But “although the surge in smartphone use coincides with a sharp rise in pedestrian fatalities during the same period, there is a lack of evidence to establish a definitive link,” the report said. “This may be due in part to the inability of police crash investigators to accurately capture momentary distraction caused by smartphones, many of which are mounted on vehicle dashboards and windshields.”
Legislation to fine people who text while walking has cropped up in some cities — including New York — to discourage pedestrian distraction.
Meanwhile, legislation to fine people who text while walking has cropped up in some cities — including New York — to discourage pedestrian distraction. But opponents of distracted-walking fines argue that such laws can unfairly put the blame on pedestrian victims of car accidents, and warn that they could lead to racial disparities in enforcement.
A report this year by New York City’s Department of Transportation found “little concrete evidence that device-induced distracted walking contributes significantly to pedestrian fatalities and injuries.”
The Rutgers study’s findings highlight “an opportunity for injury prevention through patient education” about the perils of cellphone use while engaging in other activities, the authors wrote. The takeaway for individual phone users is simple enough, Paskhover said: Pay attention to your surroundings.