Shoulder surfing: Are you responsible if another traveler is offended by your screen?

Okay. So you’re on a plane, and you finish up your work and close your laptop. You glance across the aisle, and realize that a person near you is watching porn. What do you do?

According to a recent article from USA Today, looking at other passengers’ phone and computer screens is called “shoulder surfing,” and it is likely here to stay.

“It isn’t just that mobile devices are enormous and sport bright, crisp screens. It’s that travelers can’t seem to look away.”

It’s so true! There is something about a video a few rows up that just draws your eyes. People are naturally going to check out what you’re doing. So do you have a responsibility to keep it PG? The woman in the article whose seatmate was looking at porn asked him to stop, and then complained to the flight attendant. Eventually she was moved to an empty middle seat. When she complained to Delta, she was sent a brush off form letter.

I get why she would be mad—if the person right next to you is watching something extremely graphic, whether it’s X-rated or violent, it can be really disturbing and upsetting. But do you think about how the people sitting around you will react to your movie? It seems like most people just find something entertaining and watch it. But there should definitely be a line, especially when it’s likely that kids will be able to see.

The etiquette gurus quoted in the piece were surprised that basic etiquette, like “Don’t watch porn on a plane!” have to be explained to people. For some reason, people like to treat airplanes and trains as their own personal transportation vehicles, and forget about the other hundred people flying or riding along with them. I think it boils down to one thing. When you’re traveling, be considerate to the people around you. Don’t wear perfume, don’t take up all of the overhead bin space, be polite as you get to your seat, and for pete’s sake, don’t watch porn. Or, if you think you’ll be watching something someone may find objectionable, use a privacy screen.

Readers, what do you think? Are you responsible if someone is offended by what they see on your computer?


  1. Our brains are hardwired to detect movement – it’s a survival mechanism. It is unreasonable to say “don’t look” with a small bright moving object. We, as humans, just can’t do it.

    Normally, this falls under the same category of “don’t bring stinky foods”, “don’t have loud conversations” etc. I’d say normally, because porn creates a sex based hostility. That means that Delta is violating the EEOC by subjecting their flight attendants (and any air marshals) to this.

    Utterly inappropriate. We, as women travelers, should be writing to the company about it.

  2. Now we can’t watch porn on a plane? Thanks a lot Bin Laden!
    Please spare your outrage – that was meant as a “Hangover” inspired joke.

  3. Porn is one thing…but I definitely got side-eye for watching Game of Thrones on a flight from Dallas to London. I didn’t think it was a thing, it’s on TV, so I don’t believe that’s a problem. Porn is a little different story I think though!

  4. GoT is not something I’d watch on a plane. I love it but I’d probably be annoyed with somebody watching it on a plane if I had my kids in the vicinity.

    Question: if porn is a no-no, shouldn’t we also ban romantic comedies on planes? Like porn, they create warped, unrealistic views of the opposite sex.

  5. I like how everyone thinks their 1st amendment rights go away as soon as you step on a plane. You know why delta brushed off that lady is because they know they could be sued and lose in a heart beat. Have you ever wondered why libraries have to allow people to surf porn? Hmmmm, let’s think… Lawsuit and the courts said under the 1st amendment they had to allow even though there are kids all over the library… it’s just funny that some people only appreciate the Constitution occasionally. ..

  6. Ban porn on a plane? Why that would be discrimination on the basis of sex in this brave new world!
    And don’t even think of banning the folks from Colorado from bringing their brownies aboard.

  7. I watched the pilot of LOST on a plane once – nobody said anything but I was expecting someone to.

    Also saw someone watching the Dothraki wedding episode of Game of Thrones, and that’s almost as graphic as many pornos out there. Meh.

  8. common courtesy would say, don’t watch porn on a giant laptop screen where others around you will see. (do it on your phone so at least you’re not calling as much attention to yourself!)

    i don’t think you’re responsible for others, but i’d probably give that person the side eye or even giggle at them that they couldn’t wait to be in a truly private setting before watching x-rated material. if i had my kid on the plane who could also potentially see, i would make sure he was distracted by other toys and kid-appropriate videos on a tablet.

  9. BigWilly, you got the First Amendment very wrong. It doesn’t apply AT ALL. First, it only applies to the the government. Delta is not the government and it can ban porn on its plane. Second,the First Amendment doesn’t apply to obscenity. If you are showing porn where minors can see it — it’s obscene and even the government can ban it.

    But come on people, isn’t the fundamental premise of the USA Today article correct. Have we lost all sense where we think it’s OK to watch porn in a public place?

  10. I guess my thing about porn is that it’s real – and, not to get graphic, but there’s a reason people watch porn, and I’m not sure you should be doing that on a plane.

    But I do object to the idea that I have to monitor my content for your kids. I don’t have children, by choice, and, if we’re really getting to the heart of it, I paid for my seat just like you did. There’s being considerate and then there’s asking people to police their actions for your kids. I’ve been the person who has asked kids to stop kicking my seat and gotten a “don’t tell my child what to do” – so the street goes both ways, and I feel like as long as I’m not physically violating your space or causing some kind of hazard, what I do in the confines of my own seat is pretty much my business.

  11. I think that porn-watching on the plane is just something you shouldn’t do. Can’t you wait until you get home (or to the hotel)? I’m a big fan of privacy screens, for what it’s worth. I was on a flight in 2004 (or so) using Rosetta Stone Arabic and the woman next to me freaked out and called the flight attendant over as she thought I was a security threat. I say use privacy screens, common sense and do your best to avert your eyes from your neighbors screens.

  12. +1 for privacy screens (though I don’t use them to watch porn). I realize they don’t prevent ALL prying eyes, but they help with the person who’s just idly glancing around and not trying hard to see your screen. To me, they’re a must-have, if only because I don’t necessarily want to be judged for watching crappy reality TV shows on my laptop 🙂

  13. I don’t think it’s so much that people need to be reminded that there are simply some things that one shouldn’t do in public, it’s that they simply don’t care. It’s seems this attitude of “I can do what I want and if you don’t like that’s too bad” that is becoming all too prevalent in our society. As for watching porn on a flight, I don’t think it’s appropriate at all and would have no problem with an airline banning it.

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