Picture the scene: a softly lit restaurant, an intimate corner table, your dream human sitting opposite you. You’re about to launch into the speech you’ve been rehearsing all day, you’re going to bare the innermost workings of your soul… and they immediately whip out their phone.
That, friends, is called “phubbing”, and according to some researchers, it’s killing our relationships. But just what is the psychology behind this behavior – and, more importantly, can we break the habit once and for all?
What is phubbing?
Phubbing is an example of a neologism, which just means a word that has only recently been added to a language. The publishers of the Macquarie Dictionary, the authoritative dictionary of Australian English, undertook an elaborate PR campaign in 2012, part of which involved commissioning a group of experts to come up with a new word to describe “the act of snubbing someone in a social setting by looking at your phone instead of paying attention.”
And thus, “phubbing” – a portmanteau of “phone” and “snubbing” – was born.
That explains where the word itself came from, but the behavior it describes is well-known to anyone who has ever owned a smartphone.
In the beginning, it was almost forgivable. Think back to the heady days of 2007, and the launch of the first iPhone. This thing had capabilities the likes of which had never been seen in consumer tech before. What lucky owner of such a technological marvel would not take every possible opportunity to gaze upon it, in company or not?
However, that was nearly two decades ago, and the novelty really ought to have worn off by now. Love them or loathe them, smartphones are an inescapable part of modern life. According to Statista, the number of smartphone subscriptions worldwide easily surpasses 6 billion, and will likely continue to increase.
With so many of us keeping our smartphones near at hand, it’s understandable that concerns would be raised about the prevalence of phubbing.
How the Stop Phubbing campaign went viral
The PR whizzes at McCann, the advertising agency behind the Macquarie Dictionary campaign, launched the new word into the world’s consciousness with a website imploring us all to “Stop Phubbing”. Citing such shocking (and spurious) statistics as “92 percent of repeat phubbers go on to become politicians”, the cause was quickly picked up by various media outlets.
While it may not actually be true that “if phubbing were a plague it would decimate six Chinas”, the reason why Stop Phubbing struck a chord is that, regardless of the name we decide to give it, most of us have at some time felt guilty for phubbing, and irritated at being a phubbee.
How does phubbing impact our relationships?
Around the same time as the word “phubbing” came careering into our lives, a team at the University of Essex in the UK was taking a scientific look at the effect of the mere presence of mobile phones on face-to-face communication.
The study, published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, concluded that people found it harder to form good-quality relationships with others in the presence of a mobile phone. This effect was even more pronounced when the pairs of individuals were asked to discuss a personally meaningful topic.
The science is not settled on this, though – a later study failed to replicate these findings, casting doubt on the idea that having your phone in the room with you could, in itself, be harmful.
The device itself may be innocuous enough, but what about when you use it in the presence of other people? Bringing things right up to date, a 2021 review of the literature around phubbing reported that those who are on the receiving end of this behavior feel less satisfied with their social interactions, are less trusting of their interaction partner, and may experience jealousy or low mood.
Another study found that phubbing can lead to a vicious cycle, decreasing relationship satisfaction by increasing feelings of loneliness, in turn making phubbing more likely. People with higher levels of empathy were found to be even more vulnerable to this effect.
It’s not only romantic relationships that are affected. Some researchers have raised concerns about the potential impact of parental phubbing on the wellbeing and development of children. Peer phubbing is also a recognized phenomenon, particularly among younger people, with one study making a link between this and increased smartphone use, possibly leading to smartphone addiction, to relieve boredom during the COVID-19 pandemic.
However, the impact of mobile communications technology on relationships is complex. A recent study in China, where 95.5 percent of the 8 million mobile phone users reportedly use them to manage social relationships, reported a mixture of results. Mobile phone calls were found to be a positive predictor of romantic relationship depth, while the opposite was true for short chat messages.
As anyone who has ever been in a long-distance relationship or has experienced a COVID-19 lockdown can attest, the advent of the smartphone and its ability to keep us connected to our loved ones has been a game-changer. Why, though, do we often find it so difficult to put our phones away once we are back in the room?
Why can't we stop phubbing?
While we may not appreciate being phubbed ourselves, the practice of phubbing has become so common as to be socially acceptable. Smartphone addiction is a real thing (and not just for humans!), but a true addiction cannot account for all cases of casual phubbing – so why is the lure of the Twitter feed sometimes just too hard to ignore?
It has been suggested that one of the major contributors to excessive smartphone use is the dreaded Fear of Missing Out, or FoMO. The need to keep up with what’s happening on our social channels could drive us to prioritize checking our phones over interacting with the people around us.
When deprived of their phones altogether, the participants in one study reported concentration difficulties and more mind-wandering – but, interestingly, when they were given their phones but told to resist looking at them, they reported overall better concentration.
“We believe that at least having the mobile phone available improved perceived concentration abilities because the device remained accessible and brought participants psychological comfort,” write the study authors.
“In contrast with other work that suggests the mobile phone may have interpersonal consequences for conversation dynamics, our data suggests that there may be perceived intrapersonal benefits for those who at least have the phone in front of them relative to those who do not.”
Could it be, then, that the ideal scenario is to keep your phone in view but challenge yourself to resist temptation, thus simultaneously achieving peak focus on social interactions whilst avoiding alienating your companion? Perhaps. But the balance of evidence shows that phubbing, far from being simply a word made up to sell dictionaries, is a social phenomenon that is worth paying attention to.
Next time you feel tempted to reach for your phone while having a conversation, maybe just flip it face down on the table instead. It might just be worth resisting that FoMO, so you don’t miss out on what’s right in front of you.