How 'phubbing' hurts our relationships - and what to do about it

A growing body of research shows how the habit of looking at our phones - not the people around us - is affecting our relationships in subtle and unconscious ways.

You’ve been there. You’ve almost certainly done that. You’re having lunch with a friend and one of you - probably both of you - puts a phone down on the table. Maybe it’s face down. Maybe it isn’t. You’re there to spend time with each other. You really want to do that. Yet some kind of weird magnetic force is pulling your attention toward the screen.

What IS that?

The phenomenon is so singular, and so widespread, researchers have given it a name: “phubbing.” A contraction of “phone” and “snubbing,” phubbing refers to the habit of looking at our phones rather than the people we’re with.

Way back 2012 - nearly a geologic epoch ago, in digital terms - a ground-breaking study found that the mere presence of a smartphone, even when the screen was out of view, eroded communication and sensitivity among conversational partners.

Intriguingly, participants had no conscious awareness that their phones were silently sucking their attention away from the human interaction they desired. 

Compared to participants in a phone-free interaction, they reported lower relationship quality and less closeness with their partners. A similar study found that people reported less enjoyment from time with loved ones when phones were present.

Intriguingly, participants had no conscious awareness that their phones were silently sucking their attention away from the human interaction they desired. 

Yet banning phone use during social interactions is not necessarily the answer...

Two further studies, published in 2018 in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, looked at the quality of parent-child connection when adults use phones. Utterly unsurprisingly, both showed “frequent phone use led parents to feel more distracted, which in turn imparied feelings of social connection and the meaning that parents derived when spending time with their children.”

“These studies suggest that being constantly connected to the internet may carry subtle costs for the fabric of social life,” the researchers noted. 


Yet not all phone use in the presence of our children has negative impacts. Research has also shown that when parents use devices to access information that’s relevant to the activity engaged in - for example, viewing a museum exhibition - then phone use actually enhanced connection, and enriched the experience for everyone.

So banning phone use during social interactions is not necessarily the answer. Instead, experts increasingly endorse a more mindful approach. That doesn’t mean you have to meditate deeply before reaching for your phone.

Instead, simply ask yourself the question, Will using my phone right now enhance connection and meaning with the humans I love - or will it distract me and create a barrier between us? The answer will tell you all you need to know. 


Banning technology isn't the answer. Using it more mindfully is.

Make Family Zone's sophisticated, flexible parental controls part of the solution.

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Topics: Cyber Bullying, Parental Controls, Screen time, Mobile Apps, Excessive Device Usage, smartphone, phubbing

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