Psychologists have looked into why “phubbing” is so harmful to our social lives

GettyImages-613226656.jpgBy Alex Fradera

If you are with someone who is ignoring you while they interact with their smartphone, you have been phone snubbed, or “phubbed”. Phubbing is common, at least in Western cultures – in a recent US survey, nine out of ten respondents said they had used their smartphone during their most recent social activity. There’s also evidence that it is socially harmful, leaving people less satisfied with their face-to-face interactions and generating feelings of resentment and jealousy. Now the Journal of Applied Social Psychology has published a new study exploring the reasons for these effects.

The paper is based on PhD research by Varoth Chotpitayasunondh at the University of Kent, who, together with co-author Karen Douglas, asked mostly female student participants (average age 19) to watch a three-minute animation in which cartoon figures interacted and exchanged utterances that could not be heard but could be detected through mouth movements. Participants had to imagine themselves as the closest figure in the video and afterward make judgments about the conversation and how they felt. 

In one condition, the participants’ conversation partner’s phone remained unused on the table throughout the conversation. In another version, their partner’s attention was quickly drawn to something on their phone and they spent the rest of the interaction phubbing, keeping their gaze on the screen as they periodically swiped it while smiling and chuckling at what they saw. A third condition involved the participants’ partner engaging in bursts of phubbing interspersed with periods where they ignored their phone.

The 128 participants took a dim view of phubbing. The more it was present, the worse they considered both the quality of the interaction and the calibre of the relationship.

The researchers believe that phubbing has this effect because it is seen as form of social exclusion, analogous to when people have no choice but to eat alone at the school cafeteria or find that their friends don’t return their calls. The twist is that this exclusion occurs while sharing a physical encounter and, at least notionally, interacting – note that in the animations, the (unheard) conversation did not cease during phubbing.

Consistent with this account, Chotpitayasunondh and Douglas found that phubbing adversely affected participants’ fundamental needs, including their sense of belonging, need for meaning and self-esteem, just as is found for more traditional forms of social exclusion. The more phubbing threatened these needs (except meaning), the more the participants felt poorly about the interaction and the relationship, and this was true regardless of how typical and socially acceptable they considered phubbing to be. 

Chotpitayasunondh and Douglas point out that evidence for their social exclusion explanation doesn’t prevent phubbing having an impact through other means, such as “norm violation” – feeling insulted by a partner’s incivil behaviour, and they suggest more research into such mechanisms. 

The new findings elaborate our understanding of a subtle but ubiquitous aspect of our daily experience, one that can easily create vicious cycles of detachment, and leave even planned attempts to connect together as events where we remain partly absent.

The effects of “phubbing” on social interaction

Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) is Staff Writer at BPS Research Digest

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