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Being "Phubbed" Could Make People Feel Lonelier And Lower Their Life Satisfaction

The habit that irritates many people could also have negative impacts on people's mental health and feelings of loneliness.

Russell is a Science Writer with IFLScience and has a PhD in the History of Science, Medicine and Technology

Dr. Russell Moul

Russell is a Science Writer with IFLScience and has a PhD in the History of Science, Medicine and Technology.

Science Writer

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A bored looking woman sits at a cafe table opposite a man on his phone who appears to be ignoring her.

We have all done it, but phubbing can have real impacts on people who feel they are being ignored, a new study suggests.

Image credit: Prostock-studio/Shutterstock.com

2023 was the year of “phubbing”. It’s the hot topic that causes irritation for many people in intimate (or not so intimate) situations. And now research suggests the phubbed among us may also experience greater loneliness and mental stress. It’s seriously time to put it down and stop playing with it – your phone, that is.

For those who may have missed it (where have you been?), phubbing refers to the practice of playing with your mobile phone rather than engaging with someone in person. The term was first coined in 2012 as a portmanteau made up of “phone” and “snubbing”.

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It’s an easy habit to fall into given the ubiquity of phones in our daily lives. In 2021, estimates suggested that there were around 5.3 billion smartphone users across the world. The explosion in phones and their capabilities has fundamentally changed how we communicate and interact with one another.

On the whole, this level of connectedness has had plenty of positive implications, but there are also more troubling ones, and phubbing is up there as an issue. Previous research has shown that phubbing could have negative impacts for personal relationships, especially for the “phubbee”, the one being phubbed.

Now, research conducted in Romania has shown that recipients of this irritating social habit can experience a range of negative feelings, including frustration, feelings of isolation, reduced social connection, and lower life satisfaction.

The study’s authors, Alexandra Maftei and Cornelia Măirean, from Alexandru Ioan Cuza University, Romania, wanted to explore the impact phubbing has on phubbees, as the majority of existing studies have focused on the agents of the antisocial behavior. The authors hypothesized that higher perceived levels of being phubbed would be associated with higher levels of psychological distress and less life satisfaction.

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They also believed that the phubbed may feel lonelier as a result, which would lead to higher psychological distress and lower life satisfaction.

Loneliness is a novel aspect of this research as it has not been explored in detail before.

“The literature linking phubbing experiences (as a 'receiver', not an agent) and loneliness is scarce,” the authors write, “but some previous data argued on the predictive role of peer rejection - which is also connected to phubbing – on loneliness.”

“Other studies suggested that loneliness mediates the link between phubbing experiences and social media addiction, which is significantly associated with high psychological distress.”

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Maftei and Măirean examined 720 Romanian adults, aged between 18 and 77, with an average age of 24 years. Seventy-four percent of the participants were female, and 44 percent were in romantic relationships, while 36 percent were single, and 18 percent were married.

Participants were asked to rate themselves regarding their depression, anxiety, and stress levels. They did so by completing an existing psychological assessment designed to measure these factors. They also completed assessments to measure life satisfaction, the extent to which they feel phubbed (the Generic Scale of Being Phubbed), the time spent on social media, and their levels of loneliness.

The results confirmed that higher perceived exposure to phubbing was associated with increased levels of psychological distress and loneliness.

Interestingly, no direct correlation was found between phubbing and life satisfaction, but those who felt lonelier were more likely to report less life satisfaction and higher levels of psychological distress.

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“The assumptions made stated that loneliness would mediate the link between (a) phubbing and life satisfaction and [b] phubbing and psychological distress. In these analyses, age, gender, relationship status, and time spent online were used as covariates, given the extended literature underlying their potential influence on all the study variables,” the authors explain. “The findings sustained these hypotheses.”

Ultimately, Maftei and Măirean’s work adds our growing knowledge of the implications phubbing can have on both phubbers and phubbees.

“The study highlights the significant role of perceived phubbing when discussing psychological distress and life satisfaction, underlining the need to address further the (mis)use of digital devices (e.g., smartphones) within interpersonal relationships, as well as the need to understand better the outcomes of such behaviors to shape effective interventions in this regard,” Maftei and Măirean explained.

It is worth noting that the study is not without its limitations. The authors avoid drawing any causal relationships between phubbing and increased loneliness. This is because it is not currently clear whether phubbing leads to more loneliness, or whether those who are already lonely are more sensitive to the behavior and so will report being phubbed more often. Future work will need to explore these potential causal relationships.

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“Further studies could explore other mechanisms, as well as the protective factors that may moderate the relation between phubbing and mental health indicators,” the authors conclude.

The study is published in BMC Psychology.


ARTICLE POSTED IN

humansHumanshumanspsychology
  • tag
  • psychology,

  • relationships,

  • social behavior,

  • mobile phones,

  • phubbing,

  • Phubber,

  • Phubbee

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