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Smart Phones, Mindless Phubbing

Phone-snubbing is the emotional equivalent of distracted driving.

Key points

  • Phone snubbing is a serious concern for physical and psychological well-being.
  • Phubbers and the phubbed will have more negative emotions like anxiety and depression.
  • The key is not letting phubbing go unnoticed.

Have you ever been talking to someone who was distracted by their cell phone? If you have, then you’ve been phubbed. Their cell phone has commandeered their attention. They are more interested in their phone than in your conversation. Specifically, they are phone-snubbing or “phubbing,” a word created for the sole purpose of labeling the phenomenon.

Impact on Well-Being

Phubbing has become more than just a slight faux pas. The research indicates it is a serious concern for physical and psychological well-being. People interrupting or detaching from a conversation to look at their phones creates emotional whiplash. In a surprising series of findings, the emotional impact isn’t just on the phubbed—it also seems to indicate that the phubber may be depressed.1 Beyond friends and acquaintances, lovers who phub each other may have problems in the bedroom. Studies also show phubbing reduces relationship satisfaction among romantic partners2 and can harm parent–child relationships.3

Phubbers and the phubbed will have more negative emotions like anxiety and depression, lower self-esteem, less psychological well-being, and many fewer positive emotions.4 How common is it to be phubbed? The range from different surveys is from 49 to 72 percent. The impact at work can be devastating with employees who have been phubbed by their boss feeling their work is not valued, deteriorating their self-confidence. In school, phubbing in class was seen as a major distraction, and, as mentioned, it is now widely noted that the satisfaction between partners is negatively affected by phubbing behavior.5

At the very core of our well-being is the sense of hope6 and the quality of our relationships.7 Phubbing has the ability to negatively impact both and may now be the emotional equivalent of distracted driving. You may not get into a serious accident while looking at your phone during a conversation, but you may be hurting yourself and others just the same.

Tips for How to Combat Phubbing

There are several things you can do to keep from phubbing. Each is designed to keep you engaged rather than distracted. You would do better to do everything you can to stay connected in a conversation for a minute than be in a conversation for 90 seconds and 20 of them phubbing someone. The key is to stay engaged for as long as possible—and then to excuse yourself if you need to check the phone. Saying you have to take care of a few things right now but that you will get back to someone is better than drifting away into phub-dom.

Here are some key strategies:

  1. Awareness. This might seem obvious, but acknowledging that there are two people in the conversation is the foundation for being ready to connect. Begin by thinking about the fact that someone is joining you, and they may be coming to this meeting with a very different readiness and awareness than you. Make the time you have together count so that it is valuable and useful to you both. Even if it is brief—make it positive and engaged.
  2. Presence. This allows you to be fully in the encounter. Don’t become distracted while in the conversation. This lack of presence and engagement makes the connection feel weak and unimportant. Save your dyads for when you can be fully present. If you know you are going to meet with someone, you might try leaving your phone behind or putting it in your pocket for the duration.
  3. Genuineness. Try to bring all of your attention to what the person is saying, and choose your words back with a sense of authenticity. To start and maintain a good connection, you’ll need to listen and speak with an emphasis on being open, honest, and transparent. If you are trying to mask your feelings and reactions, it is likely to be another form of distraction in your conversation. If you only have a certain amount of time to speak—say this in the beginning so that there will be two of you acknowledging the time is limited. This will help you stay engaged, aware, and focused for the duration when you know the time you’ll be together is limited.
  4. Active listening. This has been around a long time and is still not always practiced. Being an active listener means telling someone what you heard them say. A large percentage of communication errors come from a lack of active listening. When you are phubbing, you are not actively listening, despite what you think. An active listening statement is typically creating a natural pause in the conversation: “Let me make sure I understand—you finished the report on time, but they said they didn’t get it; is that right?” This active listening does two things. First, it allows you to assimilate what is being said, put it into your own words, and feed it back for review by the person. This will definitely keep you engaged. Second, it allows for confirmation or clarification. In this example, the feedback given could be responded to by the original sender by saying: “Yes, that’s right. I worked for two weeks on the report to get it in on time, and they ignored it.” Or it can be a clarification: “Well, I only finished part of the report, but they wouldn’t accept it.” In either case, the connection and conversation remain a positive experience between two people.

Finally, here are three things you can do if someone phubs you. Remember, from the research above, if someone is phubbing you, it may be saying more about their emotional state than they realize. Here are three ways to cope:

  1. As soon as someone phubs you, say the obvious—but in a compassionate and non-confronting way: “It looks like there is something important you need to attend to. I can come back later, or we can talk at another time if this is inconvenient.” This lets them know that the conversation you were having isn’t going forward, that you are not going to ignore their distraction, and that you are willing to be flexible. All of these things move the conversation toward a resolution rather than trying to ignore what’s happening.
  2. A somewhat more direct approach is to say: “Do you need me to reschedule?” I'll need feedback on some of the things I have to cover, and it looks like you have something important to check.” This does the same as the first one but gives the individual the clear message that your time and message are important. Again, this highlights that if they can’t be present, you aren’t interested in staying in the conversation.
  3. Finally, a soft and nondirect way can nudge the person back into the conversation: “Do you need me to wait until you take care of that?” This is quite lovely in that it makes it known that their behavior has been noted, and you are asking for some guidance from them about how you should proceed. It is soft but powerful as it awakens the phubber to the fact that their behavior has impacted you.

In all of the instances about dealing with phubbing, the key is not letting it go unnoticed. The avoidance of dealing with it allows the behavior to continue—along with the negative feelings it can create.

A version of this article was previously published here.

References

1. Liu, J., Wang, W., Hu, Q., Wang, P., Lei, L., & Jiang, S. (2021). The relationship between phubbing and the depression of primary and secondary school teachers: A moderated mediation model of rumination and job burnout. Journal of Affective Disorders, 295, 498-504.

2. 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.

3. Liu, J., Wang, W., Hu, Q., Wang, P., Lei, L., & Jiang, S. (2021). The relationship between phubbing and the depression of primary and secondary school teachers: A moderated mediation model of rumination and job burnout. Journal of Affective Disorders, 295, 498-504.

4. Schivinski B, Brzozowska-Woś M, Stansbury E, Satel J, Montag C, Pontes HM (2020). "Exploring the Role of Social Media Use Motives, Psychological Well-Being, Self-Esteem, and Affect in Problematic Social Media Use". Frontiers in Psychology. 11: 617140. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2020.617140. PMC 7772182. PMID 33391137.

5. Liu, J., Wang, W., Hu, Q., Wang, P., Lei, L., & Jiang, S. (2021). The relationship between phubbing and the depression of primary and secondary school teachers: A moderated mediation model of rumination and job burnout. Journal of Affective Disorders, 295, 498-504.

6. Long, K. N., Kim, E. S., Chen, Y., Wilson, M. F., Worthington Jr, E. L., & VanderWeele, T. J. (2020). The role of Hope in subsequent health and well-being for older adults: An outcome-wide longitudinal approach. Global Epidemiology, 2, 100018.

[viii] Vaillant, G. E. (2012). Triumphs of experience. In Triumphs of Experience. Harvard University Press.

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