Why You Can’t Stop Looking at Other People’s Screens

You’re not a creep, though you are a thief. You’re also a human.

Comments: 28

  1. This was utterly fascinating, yet, personally, I can't recall ever looking at someone else's portable screen. I suppose I don't find it interesting. Noticing a book someone is reading or coming up to someone's work desk with a laptop or desktop on view is another matter.

  2. I don't care what's on someone's screen.

    I don't want to hear their side of a phone call.

    And I really, really don't want to hear both sides of their Facetime conversation when they put it on speakerphone.

  3. @Pat
    Do you mind conversation where two people are physically present? Unless they are annoyingly loud, cell phone conversations are just two people talking. Most people get mad just because they cannot hear the other side of the dialogue (and they are nosy).

  4. @Kraktos

    Most of us object to overhearing cell calls precisely because the person is speaking too loudly, to the extent that all those around them have to hear it. And because those people seem oblivious or unconcerned to the fact that everyone else can hear them.

  5. @Kraktos

    I missed the last line of the second of your otherwise identical posts. Are you really suggesting that people don't like having to hear other people's cell calls simply because they can't eavesdrop on both sides of it? I don't think many people will agree with you on that, and I certainly do not.

  6. I'm actually very annoyed and feel harassed when I'm forced to see someone else's screen, or worse, listen to their conversations. Other people's conversations are literally never interesting to me. That's why I always listen to music on public transport so I cannot hear people talk. And I keep my eyes either on my own phone, or closed.

  7. Of course it’s creepy to look at someone else’s mobile device. To suggest it isn’t is just ridiculous. Would it be okay to look into a woman’s purse just because it happened to be open?

  8. Since I live where public transportation is almost nonexistent I never have to deal with most of the issues in this article. However, I often go to restaurants for breakfast and lunch and prop my tablet up to read while I eat. If someone is in a position to see my screen I usually pick a comic book just to “say” “This old guy is not like you and doesn’t care if you know it.”

  9. If you see a woman on the subway with her hand up shielding her face from the incredibly bright beam of light of the phone of the person next to her, that's ME!!!
    It gives me a headache right through the eyeball. My communication device is turned off and in my bag.

    Remember Star Trek? We all couldn't wait to get one of those communication devices! But notice: when Picard or Kirk was done talking, he put that thing away!
    How silly it would have been if they all continued to stare at their communication devices. The Klingons and/or Borg would have taken over immediately.

    Hmmmmm....might this explain the election of Trump?

  10. Remember the good old days of eavesdropping on conversations and glancing at the page of someone’s book or magazine? This used to be a singularly lovely part of riding the subway. Look at my screen all you want, but it’s such an impoverished way of seeing and knowing someone else. Better to just stare at your own. Or better yet, read a book!

  11. I have never once intentionally looked at another persons phone screen without their express invitation. The authors' voyeurism is a personal issue with boundaries not a social epidemic.

  12. There is a very good way to fight the problem of people looking at your screen: stop waving it around in public. If you do so, and someone is not making a sustained effort to look over your shoulder, it is fair game.

    Certainly deliberately capturing someone's password is dishonest. But otherwise, what happens in public is public, as all professional photographers are aware.

  13. I always look at people's screens. Mostly b/c I can't stand how oblivious people are to their surroundings when using a phone. There is nothing worse than someone walking down the street looking at a phone. It's fine to pass the time on the subway with your phone, but if you don't want people to see what you are doing, then don't hold it out in front of you for all the world to see. You can't waive your phone around in front of people's faces and then claim what's on the screen is private. Sorry, it doesn't work that way.

  14. The ubiquitous cellphone screen, and the hypnotized masses which remain transfixed all day long, will be the downfall of civilization.

    If people don't like others looking at their screens, get a screen protector....

  15. Some people are voyeur; some unsure of their own existence and require validation; then some carry the "hear something; say something" way too far. In a benign situation, we are social animal; in a sinister situation, it is about control.

    The same with people who don't want to be bothered. In a benign situation, they want separate peace; if a pathological situation, remember Kitty Genovese?

  16. Surprising that no one has mentioned putting a privacy screen protector on their smartphone, which is an easy fix. Also amazed at how many people don't password-protect their phones. (Because, yes, I too have looked over others' shoulders.)

  17. amazing that you can see well enough to note such detail. no wonder you feel guilty about peeping.

  18. Looking at someone's screen is no different from looking at someone's book (say, on the subway, or on a bus). A different platform, but the same psychology. And smartphones are so much more ubiquitous than books these days, though some people are actually reading books on them, but most not.

  19. Screen privacy is almost impossible on a subway commute so I'm not sure how to solve that one. If you're thoughtless enough to bring up sensitive account information on a crowded subway I'm not sure what you'd expect.

    And don't expect people not to stare or look annoyed if you decide to have a private phone call on speaker, or worse Facetime, in a public place.

  20. I bought an iPad 1 in the initial flurry and it was delivered to my office in April, 2010, then carried it on my backpacking trip around Turkey a month later. Everywhere I went people gushed "WHAT is that," and "where can I get one?" As an old guy, all I can say is that things sure do change fast. Today more people carry tablets than wristwatches.
    All technologies have their advantages and disadvantages, though as Jerry Mander argues in his seminal work In the Absence of the Sacred, the downsides only appear when the honeymoon is over. As a lifelong budget traveler my biggest fear was always running out of books, while communicating with loved ones back home almost out of the question. Though I recognize all the privacy and security concerns, I still consider my iPad(s) a miracle in my life, books, music, telephone, interent and camera in a handheld package.

  21. this is unsuprising. with no one 'home' leading at the helm of teaching how to have a well-rounded, responsible, fulfilling life; what needs to be done when - and how; of course an overly expensive, resource-wasting, plastic cartoon player in nearly every hand will draw the mindless attention of most.

  22. It’s not such a stretch to admit the only way not to peek is stay at home where, one way or another, a device is peeking at you.

  23. I've had people shoulder surf me and, when they didn't like what they saw, turned me in to the authorities (who interrogated me, examined my gallery, and found nothing criminal).

  24. Why can't you stop looking at other people's screens? Because they're everywhere. Because yours is on, and you wonder if you're missing something. Because we have a huge, fat bailout option these days: check out, log on, turn off.
    The kids turn off their book-reading, risk-taking, others-helping selves. Grownups turn off their mediocrity-filtering, legitimate source-seeking selves.
    You can't stop looking at other people's screens because you're not looking somewhere else.

  25. How old are you, John Herrman? The reason I ask is that you see people reading over fellow passengers' shoulders at their screens and you think it's a new thing. People have been reading over other people's shoulders for centuries, at their newspapers, magazines and books. So what else is new?

  26. It never occurs to me to look at other people's screens. What's a glimpse of what someone is looking at going to do for me? I am always amazed that when I stop at a light in my car, when I look from side to side, I notice that the drivers of the adjoining cars are looking at me. What's that all about? I never do that.

  27. Sorry, the author seems unaware that there is no expectation of privacy in public places, at least in the United States. Anyone who expects privacy must take steps to conceal themselves from casual observers of them in plain view. People who casually observe others are not thieves, they're merely curious and within the bounds of the law.

  28. nah - not a thief.

    Australian law allows photography of any people in public - as they have 'no reasonable expectation of privacy' in public - perhaps unless they ask you not to - or you intend to sell the pictures for profit.

    So if someone is staring at a small screen on public transport, and I happen to be behind them, they have no right to expect I should not look at their screen.