Pokemon Go is just the latest, albeit often obsessive, iteration of our inability to see beyond our phone screens, writes Jane Bradley
Last month, two men fell down a cliff in San Diego. They weren’t rock climbing, or even looking for rare birds. They were playing virtual reality game Pokemon Go. Two adult men, attracted by a rare monster they need to “catch”, didn’t even notice they were passing through a dangerous fence, so obsessed were they by what was happening on their phone screen – and plunged 80 feet to end up unconscious, and in need of being rescued.
Ridiculous, you might say. Absolutely unthinkable that that could be you.
Don’t speak too soon. The Pokemon Go phenomenon, which has been blamed for numerous accidents both in cars and on foot, is only the latest catalyst, albeit an extreme one, in a growing number of phone-related pedestrian mishaps.
It reminds me of those people you see sometimes, usually on visits to London, who are walking along the street reading a book. It’s not usually a trashy novel – the latest Jilly Cooper or a paperback of Dan Brown. No, it’s more likely to be something by Albert Camus. Or maybe a new Haruki Murakami, if they’re feeling more modern.
Look at me, it says. I am so engrossed in the important thing I am doing, that I can’t be torn away from it for a moment. The rest of you mere mortals will need to be alert, ensure that you wind your way around me. For I am so busy and important I can’t be expected to watch where I am going.
The vast majority of the population would agree the walking book readers look like idiots, no matter how highbrow the literature they are reading. Most people wouldn’t do it with a book.
Yet when it comes to their phones, looking ridiculous flies out of the window. For texting, Facebooking and even Pokemon-ing are all deemed far too important for people to stop just to execute something as mundane as walking.
According to Ofcom’s Communications Market report, out this week, two-thirds of people claim that someone distracted by their mobile phone has bumped into them on the street. Almost a quarter of people say it happens to them at least weekly, with more than a third saying they collide with a phone addict on a monthly basis.
Meanwhile, just 23 per cent of people admit they have been guilty of colliding with another pedestrian while looking at their phone.
A separate survey from 2014 found that seven out of ten young adults aged up to 24 admit using their mobile phones while walking compared to just three in ten of those aged 55 and over.
And the reason that this multi tasking is so impossible is simple: “When texting, you’re not as in control with the complex actions of walking,” explains Dr Dietrich Jehle, a professor of emergency medicine at the University of Buffalo in the US.
When walking is considered a complex action because our brains are so obsessively engaged elsewhere, we should realise that we have a problem. In short, we are all glued, 24/7 to our phones.
And the accidents do not stop at comical Laurel and Hardy-style collisions. More than 60 people on British roads – including seven in Scotland – have been killed in accidents in the past three years because a driver was using a mobile phone. Even driving, in charge of a tonne-weight lump of metal hurtling along the road at 30, 40 or 50 miles per hour, we cannot resist sneakily checking our handset in case someone has liked our latest witticism on Facebook or Twitter.
Yet, there is some redemption. According to the Ofcom report, we in Scotland are more likely to object to someone using their phone in a social situation.
Three-quarters of Scots, the report claims, think using a phone in a cinema or theatre is unacceptable. A further 69 per cent think that texting, Facebooking or chatting while eating – either in a restaurant or at home – is equally socially taboo.
The figure in the report that did hit the headlines when it was published on Wednesday was that a quarter of Scots feel they are so reliant on their mobile phones, tablet computers and TVs that they need a “digital detox” in order to function like normal human beings.
It is addiction. Plain addiction. We’ve all felt it, no matter how hard we try to pretend that we haven’t. That twitching of the fingers when our phone is not within tapping distance, that feeling that something is missing on the one day we’ve left it at home. It used to be a naked wrist feeling people would experience when they went out for the day without their watch – now it is a naked finger feeling.
My colleague admits that his addiction has become so pronounced that he is no longer able to enjoy a football match on TV for its own sake – while sitting in front of the set, he has to stay glued to his phone to check what people on Twitter are saying about the score.
The only solution, he says, is to place his phone in another room where he cannot be tempted to second screen.
According to the Ofcom report, being online takes away from various other aspects of everyday life.
More than a quarter say their addiction to being on the internet – ironically, a large proportion of which will have been to use social media sites and messaging services such as Whatsapp, which have seen Scottish useage rocket from 18 per cent in 2014 to 26 per cent this year - prevents them from spending time with friends and family. Meanwhile, 42 per cent say they wake up tired after sacrificing sleep to surf the web.
Almost one in ten says their preoccupation with checking out what is happening in the virtual world means they neglect their job or turn up late to their desks.
We are missing out on real life. I think we could all do with a digital detox.