November 28, 2021

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Lesson of the Day: ‘If You Look at Your Phone While Walking, You’re an Agent of Chaos’

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Students in U.S. high schools can get free digital access to The New York Times until Sept. 1, 2021.

Featured Article: “If You Look at Your Phone While Walking, You’re an Agent of Chaos” by Veronique Greenwood

Be honest: Do you ever look at your phone while walking in a crowded hallway at school or on a busy sidewalk? Do you see others doing this? Have you ever thought about how this simple action might affect the people around you? A recent experiment by Japanese researchers revealed how just a few distracted walkers can throw off the movements of a whole crowd.

In this lesson, you’ll learn more about the experiment — how it was conducted, what researchers found and what the implications are for individuals and society. Then we invite you to evaluate several solutions for stopping distracted walking or to propose one of your own.

Imagine, as the researchers you will read about in the featured article did, you want to study the effects of distracted walking on crowd movement.

First, make a prediction: What do you think would happen if several people were walking while looking at their phones in a crowded school hallway or on a busy sidewalk? How might these distracted walkers affect the way the crowd moves, if at all? Why do you think this would happen?

Now watch the 30-second video embedded at the top of this post, which shows one of the experiments researchers created to study the effects of distracted walking.

You might watch the video several times. First, get a sense of the experiment:

Then watch it again to observe what the experiment shows about the effect of distracted walking on a crowd:

  • What patterns do you notice in the way the crowd moves, if any?

  • How do the people in the red hats move compared to those in the yellow hats?

  • What effect do the distracted walkers have on the crowd as a whole? How close was your prediction to the outcome of this experiment?

Read the article, then answer the following questions:

1. How is walking through a crowd “like a dance we perform with those around us,” according to the article? Why does looking at your phone disrupt that dance?

2. Hisashi Murakami, a professor at Kyoto Institute of Technology, and his colleagues conducted a series of experiments to study the effects of distracted walkers on crowd movement. What did they observe about crowd movement in the first experiment, with no distracted walkers?

3. In what ways was crowd movement affected in a later experiment, when distracted walkers were at the front of the pack?

4. Why might looking at one’s phone have these effects?

5. What are the real-world implications of this study? What does it reveal to us about the ways we navigate crowds? How might individuals and cities use this information to improve crowd movement in the smartphone era?

Now that you know the effects distracted walking can have on crowds, what should be done to combat it?

Look at four solutions:

  • Redesign Cities: In the article, researchers suggest that architects and city planners take distracted walkers and their effect on crowds into account when designing buildings and cities. In 2019, the city of Manchester in Britain introduced a pedestrian “slow lane” for people using their mobile phones.

  • Take Personal Responsibility: In “Texting While Walking Is Dangerous. Here’s How to Stop.,” Brian X. Chen suggests that individuals take control of their technology use and employ several strategies to not look at their phones while walking.

  • Outlaw Texting While Walking: Some cities have gone as far as banning distracted walking. In Honolulu you can be fined up to $35 for viewing your electronic device while crossing streets.

  • Install an App: Several apps have been developed to help people manage walking and looking at their devices. For example, Type n Walk lets users type while using their phone’s camera to see what is ahead of them (though how well it works is up for debate). Another app, called Look Up, reminds pedestrians to take in the sights and sounds around them and engage with other humans.

Which of these solutions, if any, do you think would be most effective for pedestrian traffic snarls and collisions on city sidewalks or crowded hallways? Why? You can read more about each idea by clicking the linked articles or conducting your own research.

If you don’t think any of these ideas would work well, propose your own solution. Explain it in detail and why you think it would be the most effective fix for distracted walking.

About Lesson of the Day

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Teachers, watch our on-demand webinar to learn how to use this feature in your classroom.

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