How Listening To Music While Walking Puts Kids At Risk

Screens are bad, but earbuds aren't great either.

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Whether your kid is walking, bicycling, or driving, his or her smartphone could contribute to a crash, according to a literature review of 11 studies in the journal Child Development. And it’s not just texting and driving that parents should worry about. The research shows that even listening to music while walking can put your kid at risk.

“The literature seems to suggest listening to music is quite dangerous,” coauthor on the study David Schwebel of the University of Alabama told Fatherly. “We know that listening to music does not pose a high risk to drivers, but it may be much more dangerous to pedestrians and probably to cyclists.”

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Schwebel and colleagues determined this by breaking walking, biking, and driving distractions into four domains: visual (eyes off the road), cognitive (mind off the road), manual (hands off the wheel), and aural (ears off the road, or listening to anything other than the ominous sound of oncoming traffic). Through a systematic search, they identified 41 articles on the subject that were peer reviewed, published before February 1, 2016, related to kids and teens either walking, bicycling, or driving while using mobile technology. They then excluded 30 of those studies, due to outcomes either not relating directly to technology use or due to results based on self-reporting.

Together, the remaining 11 studies suggest that mobile technology affects visual and cognitive processing and reduces youth safety on the road overall, no matter what type of transportation, developmental level, or type of task. Though the strength of results varied, the theme was consistent: distracted kids with phones can get hurt, and distractions come in many forms. Visual processing of roadway stimuli and cognitive processing of perceived stimuli helped to explain why texting while driving is so dangerous—because it covered at least two of these domains. Interestingly, listening to music was not dangerous for drivers, but it put pedestrians and cyclists at risk.

Schwebel suspects aural distractions impacted walking and biking the most because being able to hear traffic is so important. “When hearing is blocked by headphones or earbuds, the aural information about traffic is lost and safety may be sacrificed,” he says. Which means it doesn’t take aggressive air guitar for someone to get hurt.

Still, there is room for skepticism since none of the sample sizes in the 11 studies reviewed exceeded 100, and many looked at fewer than 50 cases. Despina Stavrinos, a coauthor on the study from the University of Alabama, told Fatherly that this highlights the need for more robust research into the behaviors that put kids at risk. “The need for transportation-related injury prevention research is not going to decline in the coming years,” she says.

In the meantime, both researchers say they exercise caution with their own families—but neither go so far as to ban music or smartphone use. Schwebel, who is also the father of a 13 and 10-year-old, says enforcing smart screen time involves a delicate, but achievable balance. “I work to keep them safe,” he says. “But also allow them to have technology and engage with the technology for learning, entertainment, and socializing, just like their friends do.”

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