As cellphones got smarter, they also became marginally more dangerous to the clumsy, easily distracted humans holding them, according to new research. Before phones came loaded with perilous pings from Twitter, read receipts, or news alerts, the researchers found, they posed less of a risk to the integrity of their users’ faces.
Around 2007 — the year the first iPhone was released — the number of head injuries caused by cellphones spiked, according to this new study, which was published in the journal JAMA Otolaryngology–Head & Neck Surgery. That number has continued to rise over the past decade. “The phone went from being a phone to being a mobile platform,” says study author Boris Paskhover, a head and neck surgeon at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School. Old-school phones didn’t distract people so much that they tripped and cut their eyelids. They also didn’t slip out of people’s hands and fall on their noses, and they didn’t contain the medical hazard that is Pokémon Go. Smartphones, though, do. “People stopped being aware of their surroundings,” he says.
Paskhover pulled data from between 1998 and 2017 on cellphone-related injuries to the head and neck from the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System (NEISS) database, which holds information about injuries treated in emergency departments at around 100 United States hospitals. Then, the team used that information to estimate the total number of cellphone-related injuries in the country.
The 100 hospitals in the database reported 2,501 cases of cellphone-related injuries between 1998 and 2017, which the authors estimate is the equivalent of just over 76,000 injuries nationwide during that same time period. Around 40 percent of injuries were in people between the ages of 13 and 29, and the most common diagnosis was a deep cut.
Cellphone injuries fall into one of two categories, with roughly the same number in each: direct mechanical injuries (like someone dropping their phone on their face or hitting a sibling with a phone) and cellphone use-associated injuries, like someone tripping on the sidewalk while they were distracted by Instagram. Kids under the age of 13 were far more likely to suffer direct injuries — they accounted for 82 percent of the injuries to that group — while older adults above the age of 50 were more at risk of use-associated injuries.
For Paskhover, the use-associated injuries are the most concerning. Most of those injuries came while people were distracted; they were driving and texting, or walking while looking at their phones. Ninety of the injuries he looked at occurred because people were distracted by Pokémon Go.
Getting slammed in the face by a phone is objectively not great, and it makes sense that doctors like Paskhover would be alarmed. But it’s also important to note that most injuries weren’t very serious. Nearly 95 percent of people who reported injuries were either treated in the emergency department and immediately sent home, or sent home without treatment. And the 76,000 estimated injuries breaks down to only around 4,000 per year, which is less than half of the number of children who go to the emergency room with burns from instant soup each year and 0.02 percent of the number of people injured on trampolines in 2017.
The study only included head and neck injuries, though, not injuries to other body parts. In addition, the numbers are probably far lower than the actual number of injuries related to cellphones, Paskhover says. “I think it’s severely underreported,” he says. “If someone is walking down the street and they drip and fall, they’re not going to say that they were being a schmuck and looking at their phone. They just say they tripped and fell.”
Paskhover sees patients when they’re already injured and need the damage to their faces fixed. He’d like fewer of those cases make it to his office. “How often do you see people bumping into each other while they’re walking? Clearly people wouldn’t read a magazine while they’re walking, but they’d read an article on their phone,” he says. “People are crossing Park Avenue in New York City without looking. They’re going to get hit.”