Phubbing destroys social relationships

The behaviour dubbed 'phubbing' is eroding relationships and basic fundamental needs. Here's how...
24 October 2020




Unconsciously ignoring someone during a social setting to focus on a smartphone has a negative effect on relationships and threatens our basic human fundamental needs, such as the need to belong and the need for self-esteem... 

Whether you know it or not, you are the phubbee or have been phubbed.

The term “Phubbing”, refers to the act of snubbing someone during a face-to-face interaction, by paying attention to one's smartphone instead of communicating directly with their conversation companion. This term is a portmanteau of “phone” and “snubbing”, which emerged from a campaign by the famous Macquarie Dictionary who claimed this behaviour was present in society since 2007. However, there was no specific word to describe the growing issue of smartphone usage during social interactions until 2013.

Numerous studies have highlighted technology to have over taken face-to-face communication; limiting human interactions. Smartphones have become the new portable “pocket computer” according to researcher Karadağ, and it has now become part of our everyday and modern-day lifestyle.  Even though it may be relatively harmless, psychologist Dr Emma Seppälä from Stanford university, revealed in reference to her ‘The Happiness Track’ book; it can cause major disruption to present moments during in-person relationships.

Just think about the times a conversation stalled because your companion (or you) were preoccupied scrolling through their smartphones and suddenly opt into a social media black hole. How did it make you feel? Annoyed? Ignored? Angry? Well, this is the start to destruction within social relationships.

What kind of major problems can occur through phubbing?           

Researchers Varoth Chotpitayasunondh and Karen Douglas published a paper in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology explaining phubbing to be a form of social exclusion. The influential philosopher Kipling Williams further discussed the idea of social exclusion as “being invisible and being excluded from the social interactions of those around you,” and to therefore threaten our basic fundamental human needs such as belonging, self-esteem, meaningful existence and control.

This was demonstrated by instructing 153 volunteers to view a three-minute animated video of a conversation between two people, as a dyadic conversation. These participants were asked to imagine themselves with the character facing their back to them. There were three conditions involved, and therefore participants were assigned to one of three; no phubbing, partial phubbing and extensive phubbing. Results revealed, as the level of phubbing become extensive, participants showed greater threat to their basic four fundamental needs, in particularly affecting their need to feel belonged. Ultimately, levels of perceived communication quality and relationship satisfaction was demonstrated as poor when phubbing was involved, which explains the overall negative effects on social interactions.

Researcher Sabrina Adams emphasises passive characteristics, such as avoidance of eye contact and refusal to communicate, contribute to being phubbed, for instance being given the “silent treatment”. This strategy can frequently occur when an individual is disinterested, therefore the conversation partner on the receiving end will feel distant with the social interaction and likely experience passive aggression. Therefore, these effects can threaten one’s sense of belonging, relationship satisfaction and lack “the degree of togetherness and emotional bonding”, as Hanna Krasnova has suggested.

Phubbing can make you feel less connected. According to a 2012 publication, having the mere presence of a smartphone during a conversation –  even if it was not being used constantly, it was enough to create an environment that felt less connected to one another and ostracized. For instance, a study conducted in a classroom setting, highlights that the presence of a smartphone whilst learning will cause impairment in learning performance due to the distraction of the presence of the phone ringing. Therefore, it is clear when students spend time texting whilst learning, only 43.8% students were able to retain correct information, whilst those who did not text retained 82.1% of information. Thus, phubbing can take place anywhere, at any given time a smartphone is present.

Several researchers have indicated phubbing can hurt our mental and physical health. Two separate recent studies found that exposure to internet and social media addiction, has led to severe consequences such as mental health problems, lack of attention, emotional difficulties and loss of self-control; which predicts the phubber to experience a self-reinforcing cycle, making phubbing to become normative. In turn, this likely contributes to issues with closeness and trust with their partners, as well as insecurities developing in relationships – as being preoccupied by a smartphone gives the idea of not prioritising those moments of togetherness. Similarly, when spouses phubbed one another there is a high chance of development in depression and low long-term marital satisfaction, which can lead to loneliness and low life satisfaction.

What can we do to avoid these problems? 

In order to stop phubbing from occurring often, placing several measures such as having meals with a no-phone zone, by turning your phone to “do not disturb” mode to ignore the buzz of notifications popping up. It will allow to give yourself time to engage with people around you and uphold a sincere conversation during each meal. At first, it may feel out of the norm, but soon you will feel comfortable with the idea of holding a face-face conversation without the presence of technology. It is important to not feel afraid to leave your phone behind, by perhaps leaving it in a drawer or your bag – as any notifications received will be waiting for you later. Learning to challenge yourself by setting goals and tracking the number of hours spent without your phone, and in change treating yourself when a goal is completed – is a great way to keep track and motivation to improve. This is known as reinforcement learning.

Also, implementing solutions such as digital detoxing, can help individuals to refocus on real-life social interactions without distractions. By temporarily forgoing without technology, people can let go of excessive stress which stems from having constant connectivity. This will allow people to focus on improving levels of sleep duration. According to researcher Sushanth Bhat, 15% of individuals who spent an extra hour or more on social media whilst in bed, increased the likelihood of low sleep duration, insomnia and anxiety levels.

A question you might be asking yourself is, how can we help a loved one to stop phubbing. Simply, call them out each time it occurs and model a better behaviour for them by encouraging yourself and your partner to not have their phones out when together, this will help them learn to develop better habits in the long run. Remembering to be sympathetic towards their problem as phubbing is a learned behaviour, which takes some time to break the cycle – so be patient and understanding towards them, as they are following an impulse.

However, if there is no improvement and the cycle continues, it would be appropriate to speak to a professional such as a therapist or psychologist. As they will be able to redirect your energy to a positive outlook, by firstly discovering the deep roots of the problem. According to author Lee Bell, for many individual social media and smartphone usage is a form of escapism from reality and their problems at hand, which on the other hand can lead to worsen symptoms of depression and low self-esteem. Therefore, talking to a professional can help understand the issue and improve your response in such situations, whilst learning to not dependent on the world of smartphone usage as often.

Although, phubbing has several negative outcomes towards social interactions, it is not exactly clear why this is the case – as “phubbing” is still relatively a new research phenomenon. Therefore, scholars are looking for potential avenues to further explore the effects of modern technologies on social life, which will be beneficial to contribute as future literature. There is insufficient amount of research to fully understand how individuals with different personalities traits such as the five-factor model of personality and the influence of attachment styles, might respond to this fruitful line of research. For example; does attachment styles such as avoidance or anxious further influence peoples’ experience of phubbing? Each individual is unique and it would be useful to create a profile, highlighting personality traits a phubber and phubbee may have in common, and to examine which individual traits are more likely to be prone to respond to phubbing.

Additionally, questions such as whether similar effects occur for phubbing from different relationship contexts in individuals’ life, such as exploring friends or enemies and in-groups or out-groups, can be useful information. For example, is it worse to get phubbed by a friend or an enemy, and by one’s in-group or out-group? Such research will help researchers to continue finding new evidence between the effects of phubbing and other possible existing forms of social exclusion.

In the long-term, these findings can help with educating students from a young age in understanding the effect of phubbing impacting our everyday lifestyle and quality of living. Whilst alongside contributing to finding new interventions to address the negative effects caused from phubbing, and to prevent phubbing from happening frequently in society.



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