What Is "Phubbing," and Why Should You Care About It?

For Starters, You're Probably Guilty of It

By Cait Munro ·
Jacob Ufkes/Unsplash

Another day, another messed up thing you may be doing to your significant other without even knowing it. First there was micro-cheating, then there was stashing and benching and something called cushioning that somehow had nothing to do with a couch. Now there's "phubbing," a phenomenon so pervasive and problematic that the Journal of Applied Social Psychology was motivated to publish a scholarly article about it this week. 

The definition of phubbing, according to slang authority Urban Dictionary, is "snubbing someone in favor of your mobile phone." Get it? Phone + snubbing = phubbing. While it sounds like a decidedly millennial thing to do, in reality, pretty much everyone is guilty of it, and certainly not just in romantic situations. Examples of phubbing include last night when you mindlessly scrolled through Instagram during dinner instead of asking your S.O. about their day, that time your dad answered emails in the corner instead of interacting with the family on Thanksgiving, and all those instances in which your little nephew made it clear he would rather play games on your iPhone than interact with you in any manner.

According to the study published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology, phubbing isn't just rude to whoever you've decided to blow off in favor of your Facebook feed, it's also potentially detrimental to your own well being. After all, human interaction—like, face-to-face, verbal communication—is a basic need. In the study, researchers observed 153 participants who were asked to watch an animated video of two people conversing and imagine themselves as one of the characters. The conversations either involved no phubbing, partial phubbing or extensive phubbing, and the more phubbing the conversation contained, the more both the interaction and the relationship were perceived negatively by participants. As you can probably imagine, feeling like your life is populated by negative, unfulfilling relationships isn't great for the ol' mental health. In fact, the researchers found that phubbing threatens four of our "fundamental needs," including belongingness, self-esteem, meaningful existence and control. 

This isn't the first study on the effect of cell phones on relationships, and as they continue to play an increasingly central role in our lives—as the device where we check our email, pay our bills, interact with friends, find out about news and more—you can bet there will be more of them, and that they will likely contain similarly bad news for screen addicts. A 2015 study conducted by researchers at Baylor University, for example, had a similar premise to this one, asking participants to identify phubbing behaviors in their partners, and demonstrated that people are more likely to feel anxious and unsatisfied in a relationship if their partner is frequently on their phone around them. A 2012 study even found that the presence of an unused phone in a conversation can have a negative effect on people's perceived ability to connect with one another. 

“Ironically, phubbing is meant to connect you, presumably, with someone through social media or texting,” Emma Seppälä, a psychologist at Stanford and Yale, told Time. “But it actually can severely disrupt your present-moment, in-person relationships.”

Okay, so this all sounds pretty bad. Then again, they do studies about stuff all the time, right? And not all of the results end up being legitimate. Then again, once upon a time, stuff like smoking and driving under the influence were considered acceptable behavior. Social mores and what's considered healthy and safe behavior are forever shifting, and while nobody wants to end up on the wrong side of history, it can be hard to know what's real and what's just rabble-rousing. 

Real talk, none of us are about to forgo our phones, and sometimes, we have legitimate reasons (or what we like to tell ourselves are legitimate reasons) to stay glued to them. While cutting back on phone use, especially when it comes to the time-sucking infinite scroll that is social media, is a good and lofty goal, we also have to be understanding of the fact that sometimes phones are a necessary evil, even at places like the dinner table. It would take a societal push—something bigger than any of us as individuals—to really cut back on phone use, because if you're not willing to be connected to the office 24/7, right now, your boss can easily find someone who will.

That said, partners, dates, friends and even acquaintances who are serial phubbers should be swiftly called out. If they can produce a decent reason for the faux pas, fine. If not, they should be publicly shamed. I am only half kidding about this. There is truly nothing worse than attempting to converse with someone who is clearly only paying half-attention, and you—whoever you are—are better than all that. 

However, I'd also argue that at the core of phubbing is a lack of interest a person or situation. Think about it: When you're really engaged in a person or activity, aren't you less inspired to pull out your phone? Sure, being on your phone is an addictive habit that you sometimes have to remind yourself not to fall into, but if you often catch yourself using your phone around the same people (or vice versa), maybe consider taking it as a sign that the relationship just isn't that important to you (or them). As that sad old saying goes, sometimes he (or she) is just not that into you. And perhaps the silver lining of phubbing, if there is one, is that it provides some very clear insight into when that's the case. 

Cait Munro

Cait Munro is a freelance writer, editor, and digital content creator who obsesses about art, fashion, entertainment, and culture both pop and otherwise. Her work has appeared on Vice, New York Magazine, Artnet News, xoJane, BULLETT, and elsewhere.

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