Technology's Awkward Invasion of the Lavatory

iphone etiquette
Illustration by Newsweek; Source photos courtesy of Apple, Alan Powdrill / Getty Images

The unveiling of the newest Apple iPhone was greeted with typical fervor last week. The slimmest ever, it can be taken anywhere—including to the bathroom, where, statistically, you probably will use it.

In January, a marketing firm found that three quarters of people with cellphones admit to using them in the bathroom. One quarter say they don't go to the bathroom without theirs. Technology on the toilet is "the hot topic in bathroom etiquette these days," according to Michael T. Sykes, a computational biologist who as a graduate student started a website called the International Center for Bathroom Etiquette, an Emily Post for the potty of sorts, whose tagline reads "performing #1 and #2 in comfort and style since 1995." Our devices—including not just phones but tablets and e-readers and even our laptops—have, it seems, replaced printed matter when it comes to the bathroom, too.

The problem is that they're not as disposable. Newspapers get chucked out, but tablets get passed around, brought to meetings, and even taken to bed. Phones get held up to our faces and placed on the dinner table. A 2011 study by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine found that one in six cellphones tested positive for traces of, er, bathroom activity. It's a whole new world, and according to Sykes, the lines of acceptability are still being drawn. For him, it comes down to size. "A phone, you can put it in your pocket," he says. "But if you've got your iPad in there, where do you put it? Are you balancing it on your lap? The floor? We've pretty much got it sorted out how to keep our clothes off the floor. But I don't know what they're doing with their iPad when they have to wipe, and it makes me nervous." The logistical difficulties don't seem to be stopping anybody. Last spring, a Yahoo survey found that a third of men said they frequently took theirs to the bathroom.

But why would we risk soiling any possession—technological or otherwise? What is the appeal of bringing reading material of any kind at all? In his recent book, Psychology in the Bathroom, Nick Haslam explores what we know about why and how we use the loo. "Some of the early psychoanalysts wrote that there is actually a deep feeling that we're losing something out one end and have to reclaim it from the other," he says. "But anecdotally, people talk about spending lots of time on the toilet reading because it's a quiet space. Maybe this tells you more about people's dependence on technology than their dubious toilet habits."