- Phubbing involves snubbing someone, such as a romantic partner, to pay attention to your phone.
- As common as it is, phubbing is offensive and often viewed as a social allergen.
- People who are phubbed often feel resentment and are more likely to engage in phubbing themselves.
- Feeling phubbed predicts wanting support and approval, situations that can create retaliatory phubbing.
Maybe you're at a restaurant, maybe you're binging the latest series, maybe you're out with friends—if a romantic partner is with you, but their eyes are glued to their phone, how do you respond? New data suggest that phone use in the presence of a romantic partner is not necessarily benign (Thompson and colleagues, 2022). Partners feel it, don't like it, and may retaliate.
Phubbing Is Common but Offensive
Phubbing refers to the act of prioritizing a phone over engaging in social interaction (McDaniel and Coye, 2016). The term is a mashup of phone and snubbing to reflect the social offense of focusing on a phone instead of the people you're with.
As ubiquitous as phones are these days, the practice of phubbing remains a social faux pas. Some people see it as a social allergy, an irritating behavior that has increasingly worse effects as the offender phubbs again and again over time (Roberts and David, 2022).
If people can be allergic to others' phubbing, and it's commonly recognized as undesirable behavior (Leuppart and Gerber, 2020), why do people prioritize their phones when they're out with friends or a romantic partner? Why do people phub?
Consider the modern-day tension created by access to a phone, at any time, anywhere, even in the presence of other people. Your brain knows your phone is an endless source of stimulation, offering texting and email, news and sports, updates on friends, photos, videos, games, recipes—you name it, all at your fingers. All you need to do is look. Phones can satisfy many needs quickly by answering your questions, engaging your attention, letting you get work done, and helping you feel connected.
Underscoring the idea that phones fulfill a need, boredom predicts phubbing, possibly because boredom predicts loneliness and the fear of missing out (Gao and colleagues, 2023), two struggles that accessing a phone might relieve. For all these reasons, the pull of a phone is strong, making phubbing a tempting behavior. But when a phone's pull is more alluring than a romantic partner's, relationship well-being could suffer.
Phubbing Predicts Lower Relationship Quality
No one likes to feel ignored or unimportant; it's no surprise that phubbing is linked to poorer relationship well-being. Research has shown that phubbing is associated with lower relationship satisfaction, perhaps by predicting more conflict about phone use (Roberts and David, 2016). Phone-related conflict as a pathway to lower relationship satisfaction appears especially likely among anxiously attached individuals.
The potential correlates of phubbing appear to extend beyond the relationship itself. For example, phubbing may indirectly lower people's life satisfaction, through its adverse effects on relationship satisfaction and relationship quality (Yam, 2023). In other words, how people feel about life in general may reflect their experiences of being phubbed.
The Various Reactions to Phubbing
Phubbing might lower relationship satisfaction, but we know people do it to their romantic partners. New evidence speaks to the responses of these phubbing victims (Thomas and colleagues, 2022). First, researchers documented that phubbing victims respond in a variety of ways when phubbed. Namely, on days they perceive more phubbing from their romantic partner, people tend to:
- Feel more resentment
- Experience greater curiosity about a partner's phone use
- Retaliate by engaging in their own phone use
This last point represents the researchers' novel hypothesis (Thomas and colleagues, 2022): those romantic partners who noticed more phubbing were more likely to indicate that they pick up their own phone in response; they phub their partner right back.
Retaliation Occurs in Specific Situations
A retaliation mindset is problematic to relationship well-being. Why do people do it? Thomas's (2022) research suggests certain motivational situations appear predictive of retaliative phubbing.
- Boredom. Imagine hanging with your partner, who is on their phone rather than interacting with you. Boredom seems like a natural response. People reported that boredom was a strong motivator for their retaliative phubbing, but, interestingly, day to day, boredom did not predict retaliation.
- Wanting revenge. Revenge motives stand out as situations designed to spark retaliatory phubbing. The more phubbing a partner perceived, the more they felt a desire for revenge. Likewise, day-to-day analysis showed that on the days when people perceived more phubbing, they wanted revenge, and this revenge predicted their own phubbing.
- Wanting support. The annoying experience of being phubbed can spur a romantic partner to turn to other people, not their partner, for support. This need for support appears predictive of them picking up their phones and returning a phub for a phub.
- Wanting approval. In the sting of phubbing-induced rejection, people report a greater desire to turn to people other than their partners for approval. The phone makes this easy. Send a text! Feel the love! When phubbing creates a motivational situation of wanting approval, this may induce retaliatory phubbing.
Relationship well-being is unlikely to be enhanced by retaliatory phubbing. Indeed, two people on their phones are engaging in parallel play more than true social interaction. This is unfortunately because social interaction is a critical part of relationship maintenance.
Even the healthiest relationships likely include times when both partners are together but engaged separately with their own phones. Maybe this is not directly damaging a relationship, like when phubbing spawns feelings of revenge, jealousy, conflict, or loneliness—still, phubbing is not improving a relationship. In this sense, joint phubbing, as satisfying as it might feel in the moment, represents an opportunity lost.
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Gao, B., Liu, Y., Shen, Q., Fu, C., Li, W., & Li, X. (2023). Why cannot I stop phubbing? Boredom proneness and phubbing: A Multiple mediation model. Psychology Research and Behavior Management, 3727-3738.
McDaniel, B. T., & Coyne, S. M. (2016). “Technoference”: The interference of technology in couple relationships and implications for women’s personal and relational well-being. Psychology of Popular Media Culture, 5(1), 85–98.
Leuppert, R., & Geber, S. (2020). Commonly done but not socially accepted? Phubbing and social norms in dyadic and small group settings. Communication Research Reports, 37(3), 55-64.
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.
Roberts, J. A., & David, M. E. (2022). Partner phubbing and relationship satisfaction through the lens of social allergy theory. Personality and Individual Differences, 195, 111676.
Thomas, T. T., Carnelley, K. B., & Hart, C. M. (2022). Phubbing in romantic relationships and retaliation: A daily diary study. Computers in Human Behavior, 137, 107398.
Yam, F. C. (2023). The relationship between partner phubbing and life satisfaction: The mediating role of relationship satisfaction and perceived romantic relationship quality. Psychological Reports, 126(1), 303-331.