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Why We Ignore Our Partners to Check Our Phones

... and who is most likely to do it.

Key points

  • The more a person is phubbed, the more likely they are to engage in phubbing themselves.
  • Attachment anxiety does not necessarily predict higher levels of partner phubbing behavior.
  • People aged between 18 and 39 tend to exhibit more partner phubbing than those aged 40 or older.

You only have to look around you on a train, in a bar, or at a restaurant to see people paying attention to their phones while ignoring others around them in the process. Such behavior has become known as phubbing, which is a portmanteau of "phone" and "snubbing" and refers to the act of using a phone in a social setting while simultaneously ignoring others in one's company.

What causes people to phub?

Given that such behavior is fairly commonplace, we need to ask what it is that motivates people to do it. One recent study by Varoth Chotpitayasunond and Karen Douglas from the University of Kent in the U.K. looked at the factors which predict phubbing, finding it to be related to compulsive smartphone use, inasmuch as the more one feels compelled to check one's smartphone, the more likely one is to engage in phubbing. These researchers also 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 themselves (Chotpitayasunondh & Douglas, 2016).

Romantic partner phubbing

Phubbing also occurs in romantic relationship encounters, where it has been referred to as "partner phubbing." In my colleagues and my research, we examined two additional factors which we considered would be relevant to partner phubbing (Graff and Fejes, 2022): attachment anxiety (a tendency to worry unnecessarily when not being with someone to whom you are attached) and age. We predicted that as smartphones may be viewed as objects of attachment, individuals who display attachment anxiety may also be motivated to engage in phubbing. Secondly, we predicted that older people who had grown up without smartphones would be less likely to engage in partner phubbing behavior. We recruited 174 participants who completed measures of phubbing behavior and an adult attachment measure.

What we found was that attachment anxiety did not predict higher levels of partner phubbing behavior, perhaps suggesting that more general attachment anxiety is not related to smartphone attachment. Further work on this should perhaps focus on attachment anxiety in relation to human attachment and anxiety over perceptions of being phubbed.

We did, however, find that respondents to our survey who were aged between 18 and 39 exhibited partner phubbing more frequently than those aged 40 or older, which leads to the question of whether phubbing is now perhaps perceived as normal and accepted within certain demographic groups and in certain contexts. Indeed, the results of our study found that 47 percent engaged in partner phubbing, with only 19 percent of people reporting that they never used their phones in the company of their partners. Furthermore, given that some 98 percent of people born between the late 1990s and early 2000s own a smartphone and spend around 4 hours per day using this, claiming it to be their most important possession, then maybe partner phubbing is perhaps not unusual (Young, 2007).

Normality

In our study, when we asked people why they used their smartphones, 77 percent reported using them for accessing social media as the main reason, and 62 percent reported messaging as the main reason. Smartphones are more than just phones and function more like minicomputers, where we store our contacts, photos, and bookmarked web pages, among other things; they allow us almost constant contact with friends and contacts. In addition, because we see and experience phubbing behavior all around us, we become used to it as being normal and judge such behavior as socially acceptable.

Phubbing is certainly changing the way we interact socially, and more research is needed on the ways in which phubbing alters the quality of our social interactions. We need to know more about the way in which people might phub: For example, is it acceptable to divide our attention between our phone and our partners, and is it acceptable to engage in mutual phubbing? We need to understand a lot more about the effects of phubbing.

Facebook image: Dmytro Zinkevych/Shutterstock

References

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. (2022, Under review) ‘Phubbing and Anxious Attachment’

Young, K. (2007). ‘98% of gen Z own a smartphone.’ Retrieved from https://blog.globalwebindex.com/chart-of-the-day/98-percent-of-gen-z-ow…

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