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Is Ignoring Someone to Use Your Phone Acceptable?

Here's what predicts phubbing behavior.

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Girl being phubbed
Source: Thaninee Chuensomchit/Shutterstock

Some 98 percent of people born between the late 1990s and early 2000s own a smartphone and spend around four hours per day using this, claiming it to be their most important possession (Young, 2017). Smartphones are more than just phones, functioning more like mini computers, containing our contacts, photos, bookmarked web pages, along with allowing us almost constant contact with others. Indeed, when we asked people why they used their smartphones 77 percent reported using social media as the main reason, and 62 percent reported messaging as the main reason, thus suggesting that smartphones are what might be termed relationship-facilitating devices (Graff & Fejes, 2019).

Not surprisingly then, people often pay great attention to their phones, ignoring the people around them as a result. Such behavior has become known as "phubbing," which is a portmanteau of "phone" and "snubbing" and refers to the practice of using one’s phone in a social setting while simultaneously ignoring someone in your company.

What causes people to phub?

One cause of phubbing might be the extent to which a person is internet addicted. Quite clearly, if a person is addicted to using the internet, then they will be motivated to use their smartphones more, which would ultimately be related to phubbing.

Secondly, phubbing may be related to a person’s fear of missing out (FOMO) on conversations or events which might be happening in a different place or location. In order to allay any anxiety over this fear of missing out, individuals are driven to constantly check their phones, resulting in phubbing.

Thirdly, self-control would seem to be something which might also be related to phubbing behavior. A phubber may lack the ability to control or even monitor their smartphone use. Phubbing is related to smartphone addiction, and people who are addicted to using their smartphones will use them even if it is dangerous or discourteous to do so, and therefore the same would be the case for phubbing also.

Varoth Chotpitayasunond and Karen Douglas from the University of Kent in the UK, investigated these three factors which might predict phubbing (Chotpitayasunondh & Douglas, 2016). Their study included 276 participants, who completed the following measures:

  • The phubbing questionnaire which measured phubbing frequency and the frequency of being phubbed, ranging between less than once daily to four or more times per day. It also measured phubbing duration and the duration of being phubbed, ranging from less than 15 minutes to more than two hours. Finally, it measured perceived social norms of phubbing with items such as "Do you think that phubbing behavior is typical amongst people around you?" and "Do you think phubbing behavior is appropriate?"
  • Smartphone Addiction Scale, containing items such as: "not being able to stand not having a smartphone," "missing planned work due to smartphone use," "the people around me tell me I use my smartphone too much."
  • Internet Addiction Test, containing questions such as: "How often do you find you stay online longer than you intended?"; "How often do your grades or school work suffer because of the amount of time you spend online?"; "How often do you form new relationships with fellow online users?"; and "How often do you lose sleep due to late night logins?"
  • Fear of Missing Out Scale, which included items such as: "I fear others have more rewarding experiences than me," "I fear my friends have more rewarding experiences than me," and "I get worried when I find out my friends are having fun without me."
  • Self-Control Scale, which included items such as: "I am good at resisting the temptation," "I have a hard time breaking bad habits," and "I never allow myself to lose control."

What predicts phubbing?

Firstly, the researchers found that self-control negatively predicted smartphone addiction. In other words, the lower the level of self-control, the higher the level of smartphone addiction, whereas Internet addiction and fear of missing out positively predicted smartphone addiction; the higher the levels of internet addiction, and the more people feared missing out, then the greater their degree of smartphone addiction.

In terms of phubbing, they found a relationship between smartphone addiction and phubbing, meaning that the more one is addicted to their smartphone, the more likely they are to engage in phubbing. Similarly, they found a relationship between phubbing behavior and being phubbed, meaning that the more a person is phubbed, the more likely they are to engage in phubbing.

Is phubbing normal?

However, perhaps the most curious finding is that the more a person engaged in phubbing behavior and the greater extent to which they are phubbed were positively related to the extent to which people perceived phubbing as just normal behavior. Just a casual look around in a bar or at a café or restaurant and you see people using their phones, ignoring their surroundings and the people around them. Therefore, has this behavior become normal and acceptable?

Is phubbing reciprocal?

The researchers in the current study suggest that phubbing occurs as a result of observing phubbing going on around us and by engaging in phubbing ourselves. When we see and experience phubbing behavior around us, we become more likely to judge such behavior as socially acceptable. Being phubbed oneself increases the likelihood of phubbing. If you are with someone, and they get out their phone, then observing this behavior encourages us to mirror and copy it.

It seems that phubbing is changing the way we interact socially. However, more research is still needed on the way in which phubbing has had an effect on the quality of social interactions. Furthermore, we need to know more about the ways in which people might phub. For example, is it OK to divide our attention between our phone and someone whose company we are in, or is it OK to engage in mutually agreed phubbing? Overall, it seems as though phubbing is on the increase, and we need to understand the effects of this in more detail.

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Chotpitayasunondh, V. & Douglas, K. M. (2016) ‘How “phubbing” becomes the norm: The antecedents and consequences of snubbing via smartphone’ Computers in Human Behaviour, 63, 9-18.

Graff, M. G. & Fejes, F. (2019) ‘Attachment and Phubbing’ In preparation.

Young, K. (2007). ‘98% of gen Z own a smartphone.’ Retrieved from…

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