How ‘Phubbing’ Is Ruining Relationships, According to Science

“Phubbing” — or “phone snubbing” — is the act of ignoring the people we hang out with physically in favor of the virtual world we’re connected to through our phones. It might sound like more another new age phenomenon that gave people an excuse to invent more another trivial portmanteau – but in reality the phenomenon is much more widespread than it appears. “[Phubbing] it may not be part of your everyday vocabulary, but it’s almost certainly part of your everyday life,” noted a Time article.

In the digital age we live in, most of us have been fake – some of us, perhaps, are also guilty of phubbing. Studies show that more than 15% of people pub others at least four times a day, and 32% report being the recipient of a pub more than twice a day.

Phubbing ruins relationships. For starters, phubbing can make physical interactions less satisfying for everyone involved—even those who indulge in it. Perhaps their broken attention span prevents them from enjoying a conversation that they are constantly drifting in and out of.

Of course, it’s understandable to feel the need to check your phone every now and then. But when it happens so often that it ends up isolating the people around us, phubbing becomes a bit of a problem. As most fans will admit, it can feel pretty disrespectful to be given less importance than an inanimate, rechargeable, hand-held device – especially when the fan isn’t dealing with a crisis but just scrolling through memes on Instagram and Reddit.

For those who are upset, the action threatens four “fundamental needs” we have as human beings: belonging, self-esteem, meaningful existence, and control.


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“It’s ironic that smartphones, designed to foster a sense of connectedness and closeness to the people in our lives, actually hinder relationships and create an atmosphere of social exclusion,” Nadia Nureyzdan wrote in The Swaddle earlier. “Talking to a person face-to-face involves much more than just hearing what they’re saying – it means being attuned to the nuances of tone, facial expression and body language. But unfortunately, with our culture of phubbing, we are losing our ability to empathetically communicate with each other.

Losing communication leaves us with the prospect of damaging our relationships more than we may realize. As a 2016 study found, in romantic relationships, phubbing can create resentment and worsen relationship anxiety among phobics. A follow-up study published the following year found that phubbing also adversely affects the length of relationships and serves as a “significant risk factor for depression.”

Now, a new study—published recently in Computers in human behavior — found that being annoyed can cause a person to develop “illegitimate feelings of doubt about their partner’s commitment to them, which can cause feelings of stress and anxiety.” The study of 346 individuals suggests that this may lead to phubees trying to calm their anxieties by monitoring their partners’ electronic communications.

“To deal with these feelings, some people will hack into their partner’s online activities to gather information about what their partner is doing when they are so busy with their phones,” explained lead author Janneke Schokkenbroek of Ghent University in Belgium.

Another study—also recently published in Computers in human behavior – found that being phubbed can lead to anger, jealousy and feelings of frustration, causing phubees to engage in a “vicious cycle of resentment and revenge”. This can manifest as revenge phubbing – where the phubbie chooses to beat their phubbing partner at their own game, thus starting the aforementioned “vicious cycle”.


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However, revenge is motivated more by boredom than by a desire to avenge the partner, the authors note.

However, it’s worth noting that phubbing isn’t necessarily meant to disrespect the partner—or absolutely anyone else present, either. Often people try to deal with their own social anxiety by fixing their phones during physical interactions with people. Regardless, it’s important to ensure that our coping mechanism doesn’t lead to dissatisfaction in the relationships we’ve also chosen to be in—at least physically.

“Almost everyone looks at their phone from time to time while communicating with their partner, but it’s important to realize that this can have a negative impact on our partner and our relationship,” as Schockenbrook notes.

Phones will continue to be a part of life – at least for the foreseeable future. As such, most of us are likely to fall into the trap of cheating on our partners – even if we don’t mean to; after all, a phub can be an impulsive behavior. To make sure it doesn’t cause negativity in the relationship we share with our partners, “We need to be aware of this and make sure our partner still feels validated and heard and doesn’t interpret the phub’s behavior as disinterest in them or the relationship,” Schockenbrook suggests.

In fact, Schockenbrook suggests ways to be more considerate of our partners’ feelings, “[T]The context in which phubbing occurs can be important to consider [seeing as] for most people, it’s probably less of a problem when their partner is paying attention to their phone instead of them when they’re both at home watching TV compared to when they’re at a restaurant having dinner together… [I]perhaps [also] it’s a good idea to explain to your partner why you’re looking at your phone at that moment or include them in the activity.

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