A Nation of Voluntary Amputees: Survival Tips for Compulsive Smartphone Users

August 6, 2013 | Kyle Chayka

One sunny afternoon in New York, I was walking on the cobblestoned streets of the Meatpacking District. Cobblestones are pretty, but they are also hazardous to your health. I was staring down at my iPhone’s Maps app, as one does, when my right foot caught an odd corner of a cobblestone. I completely ate it, landing the hardest I ever have landed on a city street (sober). My phone flew into the road. To audible gasps from the people around me, I recovered and hoisted myself up in embarrassment.

iPhones can be deadly, and not just because some China-made chargers can electrocute you when you answer a call. Carrying a phone means your response time slows by around 37.5%, according to a UK study — a much higher rate than marijuana or alcohol consumption. Another British study found that 62% of texters surveyed lost their peripheral vision. When you’re  tapping away, it’s much harder to react to things around you, like changing traffic lights or incoming lampposts.

We exist with a phone eternally clutched in one hand. It’s a fact of modern life. So why not adapt the world around us to our new, bad habits rather than breaking them?

There are already some novel solutions. In London, some lampposts are now wrapped with big foam pads to keep distracted pedestrians from injuring themselves in collisions. The Mayor of Philadelphia announced the installation of “e-lanes” to separate technology-obsessed walkers from normal pedestrians who might get annoyed at the slow, meandering pace required to finish crafting a very funny tweet… on April Fools, but that’s ok. There is another way to solve the smartphone dilemma!

Why not look to the unimanus experts? Motivational speaker and pastor Ryan Haack was born in 1977 without his left forearm. Only having one hand “allowed me to learn my own way of using technology,” Haack wrote to me in an email. The experience could prove useful for the rest of us. “Products that are designed for two-handed people… could be improved by keeping one-handed living in mind.”

Haack uses a full keyboard for typing on a computer, but “texting takes me a bit longer,” he explained. His strategy is to use Swype, which is driven by dragging a single thumb across the keyboard rather than tapping with two fingers, and voice-to-text, like Apple’s Siri. These one-handed tips could also be applied to keeping bimanus users from getting too distracted — dictate your texts to your digital secretary and keep your eyes on the road.

But what about everyday activities aside from walking down the street? In her book One-Handed in a Two-Handed World, Tommye K. Mayer recommends a technique of “body positioning.”

“Reorganize the limbs you can use to accomplish the project you’ve undertaken,” she advises. This includes keeping objects secure in one hand or against the body while you manipulate them. Practice holding your phone in one hand and opening a jar or a bag of chips with the other.

Grandmother-blogger Linda Hughes had part of her right arm amputated 13 years ago. On her website, she has a list of one-handed devices that could come in handy for the smartphone-addicted. There’s a cutting board that braces food for easier chopping, a “steering knob” to make it easier to drive while texting (it’s still illegal, kids!) and a playing-card holder for all your high-stakes poker games (You’ll need your iPhone to get betting tips). Hughes suggests fanny packs to keep your hands free, which ANIMAL also supports.

Unfortunately, even if you don’t fall on your ass, smartphones are still killing you. Chiropractor Dr. Dean L. Fishman coined the term “Texting Neck” to describe the strain that results from constantly bending your head over your phone, which can lead to tight shoulders and chronic headaches. Thankfully, Fishman created the Text Neck Indicator, an app that shows a red light on your screen if you’re leaning over too far. Behavior modification FTW!

The term “Blackberry Thumb” took hold in 2007, referring to the repetitive stress injury caused by tapping too much on your phone’s tiny keyboard. iPhone users can suffer just the same. But before your thumbs fall off or you get fined for texting and walking, maybe it’s best to just take some advice from Ryan Haack: “If you need to be on the phone, perhaps using a Bluetooth headset would be helpful.”

Or you could stop texting, snapchatting, and checking your email all the time.

Just kidding.

(Illustrations: Hallie Bateman)