“Phubbing” is a term that most people might not be familiar with, but the action is certainly one we all recognize. How often have we been physically in the presence of someone, but felt like they’re emotionally “not there” because they’re so absorbed in their phone? Possibly, quite a lot. Or if not, perhaps it’s because we’re the ones scrolling instead of spending quality time with our loved ones.
Smartphones and text messaging help partners display love and affection to each other when they are physically apart. But what happens when smartphone usage becomes a “technoference” in a relationship? Phubbing – or “phone snubbing,” is becoming increasingly common. But the problem with this growth is, while you might believe it to be a relatively harmless (albeit annoying) habit, it’s actually damaging to both relationships and mental health.
To help you better understand the phenomenon of phubbing, this article will cover:
Phubbing is a portmanteau (when two words are blended together to make one) of “phone” and “snubbing” – which is pretty descriptive of the act. The term was first coined in 2012, not too long after the advent of smartphones, to describe how people were choosing to focus on their phones over the company of loved ones who were physically right in front of them. Phubbing’s meaning was further defined by Roberts and David in 2016 as, “any interruption of your conversation with someone when he or she attends to their cell phone or when you are in close proximity to another but they use their cell phone instead of communicating with you”
Phubbing has become so ingrained in our day-to-day lives that 17% of people reported phubbing others up to and above four times a day, while 32% claimed to have been phubbed up to three times daily.
The irony of phubbing is that people usually engage in it to help them connect with others either through social media or texting, but instead, they achieve the effect of disconnection from “real-time,” interpersonal relationships.
As a result of this disconnect, people who regularly engage in phubbing may find that their relationships are suffering, and consequently, their mental health.
One of our core needs in relationships is to feel valued and important by our loved ones. And spending quality time with these people is one of the most effective ways of both showing and receiving love and affection. However, research has shown that phubbing reduces the quality of face-to-face interactions – rendering these exchanges less meaningful.
Recent studies have found that not only do people report less satisfaction after interactions with another person in which they spend time on their phone, but having a smartphone present during a conversation or meeting made people feel more negative about the interaction. Ultimately, phubbing lessens the quality of bonding experiences, which, when happens repeatedly, can damage relationships.
Moreover, the increase in smartphone usage as a means to communicate between couples decreases relationship satisfaction, as well as raises the levels of conflict within the relationship as partners fight over increased phone use.
Partner phubbing (or Pphubbing) means repeatedly using a smartphone in the presence of a partner to the detriment of quality time. Whereas there has been limited research on the long term impact of Pphubbing in relationships, the act has been connected to attachment insecurity, as well as personality traits such as low openness, narcissism, and extraversion.
In the same manner as how phubbing negatively impacts our relationships, it also has implications for our mental well-being. In fact, a recent study investigating the social consequences of phubbing found that the act of ignoring people to focus on our phones threatens our core needs for healthy self-esteem, to feel like we belong, to feel meaningful and valued, and to feel like we can exert some level of control over a situation. Due to the frequency of phubbing, people are not having these core needs met to the level they require, and it’s having a knock-on effect on mental health. Instead of feeling connected to and valued by those we care about, we feel rejected, abandoned, and unworthy.
Therefore, although phubbing is not a healthy activity for anyone involved, its consequences are more serious for those frequently on the receiving end due to how these individuals’ core needs are repeatedly left unmet. Furthermore, in an attempt to feel more connected to others, people who are frequently phubbed may increase their social media and smartphone usage – which can not only lead to increased symptoms of anxiety and depression, but also to a continued cycle of phubbing.
There are attachment-based differences in how the extent to which people feel “phubbed.” Specifically, those who fall on the dimensions of attachment anxiety tend to feel more rejected when their partner phubs them than those with a secure attachment style.
Further evidence for the link between attachment insecurity and the increased risk of phubbing behavior comes from studies that examined the effects of caregiver phubbing on adolescents. The researchers found that when children perceived their caregivers to be less present emotionally due to smartphone usage, they were more likely to develop smartphone addictions themselves as teenagers. In other words, these children understood their parents to have rejected their needs for attention, formed insecure attachment styles, and, resultingly, continued the pattern of phubbing. This effect was found to have been particularly strong for adolescents with the anxious and disorganized attachment styles, but less so for the avoidant and secure teens.
Research has also shown that attachment anxiety and being phubbed by a partner have an interactive effect, leading to heightened jealousy on behalf of the person with the anxious attachment style. Factors that, in turn, lead to an even further reduction in relationship satisfaction.
If you’re wondering what attachment style you might have, take the free quiz to receive your report.
Phubbing can become such an ingrained habit that we may fail to recognize the signs that we’re emotionally checking out from our interactions with loved ones. But considering the damage that phubbing causes to relationships, it’s good to be mindful of our smartphone habits and implement change if needed.
The following are signs you might be a phubber:
You are never without your phone. And if you are without your phone for whatever reason, you feel a sense of discomfort or fear of missing out (FOMO).
You rarely focus on one conversation at a time. Instead, you simultaneously carry on two lines of communication – one in person, one on your phone.
When spending quality time with loved ones, you still automatically end up on your phone.
You inevitably bring your phone out during social events. For example, if out for a meal, you set it beside your plate in case you miss anything “important.”
If you feel like you might be a phubber, you’re not alone. Smartphone and social media usage can become somewhat of an addiction, which, as discussed, affects a large percentage of the population. So much so, that a “Stop Phubbing” campaign was created to help mitigate phubbing’s damaging effects.
Just like with other forms of addiction or compulsion, the best way to stop phubbing is to create strict rules and boundaries around smartphone usage:
To prevent phubbing from affecting your relationships, you should create a list of activities that you deem to be “quality time” with loved ones – such as dinner time, bedtime, or leisure activities. Make these times phone-free zones in which you leave your phone on silent or at home.
It’s a good idea to set your phone to “do not disturb” whenever socializing with friends, or having conversations with others in general. If you struggle with phubbing, feeling the vibration of a notification, or hearing the sound, can be difficult to resist. Give the people you’re talking to your undivided and sincere attention.
Create a list of goals or challenges for going without checking your phone. Achieving goals and rewarding yourself for doing so is a huge motivational factor for getting over any form of addictive behavior – including phubbing. For example, set yourself the task of not checking your phone during dinner time. If you succeed in this task, reward yourself by doing something you enjoy. Once you have grown comfortable with such a task, aim for longer periods of time. You may struggle with setting these goals at the beginning, but over time you will get used to feeling more present in the moment, and your relationships will strengthen in the long run. Remember to make these goals realistic – if you set yourself impossible-to-achieve tasks, you set yourself up for failure.
If you’re finding that a loved one’s phone usage is affecting the quality of your relationships, there are a couple of steps you can take to help lessen the negative impacts:
A lot of the time, phubbers don’t realize the extent of their actions, so they may not know that their phubbing behaviors are affecting those around them. Communicate that you feel their phone usage is affecting your relationship in non-accusatory ways, like, “I feel as though I’m not as important or interesting as your phone.”
Allow them the time to recognize and understand their actions before expecting immediate change.
Nobody wants to be the person who has to constantly ask their partner to put down their phone. A less direct method of communication is modeling healthier behavior by putting your phone away during meal times, not immediately responding to a notification alert, and focusing your undivided attention on them. The other person will eventually get the message (no pun intended).
Phubbing may not be a diagnosable addiction, but it is an impulse control problem. Therefore, if you recognize that your loved one is struggling not to check their phone, help them to divert their attention elsewhere. Ask them questions about their day, encourage them to go for a physical activity with you (e.g. a bike ride), or help them to practice mindfulness exercises.
Our greatest need after food and shelter is that of positive social interactions with other people. Yet, we err sometimes in our approaches to fulfilling this need. Phubbing may seem like a quick way to fulfill the need to connect with others, but it comes at the cost of true and meaningful intimacy. Even our ability to connect with ourselves is impacted by the compulsive need to check our phones.
If you suspect that you may be a phubber, the next time the urge to check your phone in the presence of others comes over you – stop, think, and tune in to what the other person is saying. A phubber’s aim is not to exclude – on the contrary, it’s to feel included. But real inclusion comes from meaningful, face-to-face connections.
Bröning, S., & Wartberg, L. (2022). Attached to your smartphone? A dyadic perspective on perceived partner phubbing and attachment in long-term couple relationships. Computers in Human Behavior, 126.
Chotpitayasunondh, V., & Douglas, K. M. (2018). The effects of “phubbing” on social interaction. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 48, 304-316.
David, M. E., & Roberts, J. A. (2021). Investigating the impact of partner phubbing on romantic jealousy and relationship satisfaction: The moderating role of attachment anxiety. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.
Dwyer, R. J., Kushlev, K., & Dunn, E. W. (2018). Smartphone use undermines enjoyment of face-to-face social interactions. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 78, 233-239.
Roberts, J. A., & David, M. E. (2016). My life has become a major distraction from my cell phone: Partner phubbing and relationship satisfaction among romantic partners. Computers in Human Behavior, 54, 134-141.
Vanden Abeele, M. M., Antheunis, M. L., & Schouten, A. P. (2016). The effect of mobile messaging during a conversation on impression formation and interaction quality. Computers in Human Behavior, 62, 562-569.