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‘Phubbing’ is not just rude, it can also undermine a basic need: to belong

Photo by Jacob Ufkes on Unsplash
Phubbing has become an all-too-common element of everyday communication.

Here’s a research finding that will surprise few people: Ignoring someone you’re talking with in order to look at your mobile phone can have a negative effect on your social relationships.

But the harm that this “phubbing” (“phone” + “snubbing”) has on relationships stems not only from the fact that many people perceive it as boorish behavior. 

Phubbing, particularly when it’s done persistently, also appears to threaten one of our basic human needs: the need to belong. 

That’s the key finding from an interesting study published earlier this year in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology

A ubiquitous behavior

Phubbing has, of course, become an all-too-common element of everyday communication. In a 2015 survey by the Pew Research Center, 90 percent of U.S. respondents said they had used their smartphones during their most recent social activity, and 86 percent said they had seen others doing the same.

In another study, almost half of the participants reported being phubbed by their romantic partner, and almost one in four of them said it had caused conflicts in their relationship. 

Research has found that phubbing tends to cast a negative pall over our social encounters. When we’re phubbed during a face-to-face conversation with someone, we tend to be less satisfied with the interaction, for example, and less likely to trust the other person. We’re also more likely to report feeling deflated, resentful and even jealous. 

Why phubbing has these negative effects is not exactly clear, however.  

Setting up the study

To get a better understanding of the psychological impact that phubbing has on us, two researchers at the University of Kent in Great Britain — social psychologist Karen Douglas and postgraduate student Varoth Chotpitayasunondh — brought 128 students (mostly women, aged 18 to 36 years) into their laboratory. 

The participants were randomly assigned to watch one of a trio of three-minute videos in which two cartoon characters were having a conversation. The participants could see the characters talking, but could not hear what was said. One of the characters had a smartphone. The participants were asked to imagine themselves as the partner in the conversation without the smartphone. 

The videos represented three different situations: no phubbing, partial phubbing and extensive phubbing. In one, the smartphone of the participants’ partner remained on the table throughout the conversation. In another, the participants’ partner glanced down at the phone about 30 seconds into the conversation and then began swiping at the screen, laughing about what he/she had seen and averting the eyes of the participant. This behavior was repeated twice more during the conversation. In the third video, the phubbing also began 30 seconds into the conversation, but this time it continued until the end.

After watching the video, participants answered questions designed to measure how the conversation in the video left them feeling — about both the interaction and themselves. 

A form of social exclusion

The results showed that the conversations that included phubbing, whether partial or extensive, were judged to be of poorer quality and less satisfying than the one where the smartphone stayed on the table. 

And the higher the amount of phubbing, the lower the assessments.

Douglas and Chotpitayasunondh believe phubbing creates these effects because it is a form of social exclusion. As such, they say, it dampens people’s mood and threatens four basic human needs: belongingness, self-esteem, meaningful existence and control.

The biggest threat, the researchers found, was to people’s sense of belongedness, the basic human need to feel closely connected with others. And that finding held no matter how socially acceptable the participants considered phubbing to be.

“Concerns about the negative influence of smartphone use during conversations therefore appears to be warranted,” the researchers concluded.

Not innocuous

The study comes with many caveats. It included a relatively small number of participants, for example, and all of them were students at a single institution. Another important limitation was the use of video animations rather than real-life conversations.

Still, the results are intriguing and suggest (along with the findings from other studies on this topic) that phubbing is a social phenomenon whose effects we should not just assume are innocuous. 

“As people become more and more reliant on their smartphones, social exclusion has perhaps become a pervasive feature of everyday social interaction,” write Douglas and Chotpitayasunondh. “[And] unlike other more well-studied forms of social exclusion, phubbing can take place anywhere and at any time as someone reaches for their phone and ignores their conversation partner.”

“People may therefore have their fundamental needs threatened more regularly during the course of routine, everyday conversations,” they add.

So, next time you’re having a conversation with someone, keep your smartphone out of sight. Doing so will not only improve your relationships, it may also provide you with more immediate benefits: a decline in your daily stress level and an enhanced sense of well-being. 

FMI: You’ll find an abstract of the study on the Journal of Applied Social Psychology website, but the full study is behind a paywall.

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 07/05/2018 - 11:56 am.

    This behavior also happens in events such as job interviews when it would seem the interviewee should entirely focused on the interviewer. The interviewee has their phone on the table and their eyes are constantly sliding that way, or they pull it out and look at it.

    The problem for most people is that the on-line life is much more engaging to them than real life.

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