Factors Influencing the Smartphone Usage Behavior of Pedestrians: Observational Study on "Spanish Smombies"

J Med Internet Res. 2020 Aug 14;22(8):e19350. doi: 10.2196/19350.


Background: Smartphone addiction has become a reality accepted by all. Some previous studies have shown that the use of smartphones on public roads while walking is very common among the young population. The term "smombie" or smartphone zombie has been coined for this behavior. Such behavior causes a reduction in the attention given to other pedestrians and drivers and may result in accidents or collisions. However, there are no precise data about how many people use the phone while they are walking on the street. Smartphone usage habits are evolving rapidly, and more in-depth information is required, particularly about how users interact with their devices while walking: traditional phone conversations (phone close to the ear), voice chats (phone in front of the head), waiting for notifications (phone in hand), text chats (user touching the screen), etc. This in-depth information may be useful for carrying out specific preventive actions in both the education field (raising awareness about the risks) and in the infrastructure field (redesigning the cities to increase safety).

Objective: This study aimed to gather information about pedestrians' smartphone usage and to identify population groups wherein interventions should be focused to prevent accidents. The main hypothesis was that gender, age, and city area can significantly influence the smartphone usage of the pedestrians while walking.

Methods: An observational study of pedestrians in the street was carried out in Elche, a medium-sized Spanish city of 230,000 inhabitants. The following data were gathered: gender, age group, location, and type of smartphone interaction. A specific smartphone app was developed to acquire data with high reliability. The statistical significance of each variable was evaluated using chi-squared tests, and Cramér's V statistic was used to measure the effect sizes. Observer agreement was checked by the Cohen kappa analysis.

Results: The behavior of 3301 pedestrians was analyzed, of which 1770 (53.6%) were females. As expected, the effect of the main variables studied was statistically significant, although with a small effect size: gender (P<.001, V=0.12), age (P<.001, V=0.18), and city area (P<.001, V=0.16). The phone in hand or "holding" behavior was particularly dependent on gender for all age groups (P<.001, V=0.09) and to a greater extent in young people (P<.001, V=0.16). Approximately 39.7% (222/559) of the young women observed showed "holding" or "smombie" behavior, and they comprised the highest proportion among all age and gender groups.

Conclusions: An in-depth analysis of smartphone usage while walking revealed that certain population groups (especially young women) have a high risk of being involved in accidents due to smartphone usage. Interventions aimed at reducing the risk of falls and collisions should be focused in these groups.

Keywords: mobile phone; pedestrian safety; smartphone addiction; smartphone overuse; smombies.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Child
  • Communication*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Internet Addiction Disorder / psychology*
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Pedestrians / psychology
  • Pedestrians / statistics & numerical data*
  • Reproducibility of Results
  • Smartphone / instrumentation*
  • Young Adult