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What Is Phubbing In Relationships?

phubbing meaning

Have you ever been trying to enjoy a nice meal with your significant other or friend, when all of a sudden they take out their phone and start to scroll or text someone back? 

Phubbing is a relatively new cultural phenomenon that rose with the influx of social media and access to the internet via smartphones. The term derives from the combination of the two words “phone” and “snubbing”: phubbing! It refers to ignoring the person you’re physically present with in favor of your phone. 

Researchers have found phubbing to be bad for your mental health and your relationships. But in this age of internet and social media addiction, how can we stop reaching for our phone? Let’s dive in to find out.

What does phubbing mean?

Phubbing is becoming increasingly common as screen times skyrocket and more and more of our life becomes virtual. The term was first coined back in 2012 by an Australian marketing team, but the phenomenon quickly made its way into the mental health world. Researchers have since found correlations between decreased relationships and mental health and increased phubbing behavior. It became so well known that the Stop Phubbing campaign was launched.

What is the state of Phubbing now? With the creation of TikTok in 2016, and the renewed boom of social media during the pandemic, phubbing is at an all-time high. 

Researchers have found that 17% of people phub others at least 4 times a day, and nearly 32% of people report being phubbed 2-3 times a day. This is only the reported amount of phubbing, so actual amounts are likely higher. 

Phubbing examples

Phubbing doesn’t always look like cutting someone off mid-sentence to respond to a text, although that happens too. Phubbing also looks like: 

  • Always keep your phone near you, just in case. 
  • Starting to scroll when the conversation comes to a lull.
  • Constantly checking your phone while doing in-person activities with others. 
  • Putting in little to no effort to find conversation topics, choosing to scroll instead. 
  • Watching a movie or TV show together and scrolling through social media the whole time. 
  • Glancing at your phone while someone is talking to you, even if you don’t pick it up. 

Phubbing has become so ingrained into our everyday lives that people believe it is normal. Go to a restaurant and see how many couples are actually engaged in conversation and how many are sitting in silence, scrolling through their phones. 

It is something many of us do unconsciously because reaching for our phone, scrolling, and responding to notifications are so automatic and natural.

Why do we phub?

Humans are social creatures. For as long as we have recorded history, we have always moved and lived in groups, relying on our social relationships to protect us. Feeling connected, loved, and in community with others is a basic human need. So why do we phub? Why do we choose to ignore those closest to us? 

One study found that people who have a phub are more likely to have a smartphone addiction and a smartphone addiction was predicted by factors like internet addiction, fear of missing out, and low self-control. 

So our habit of phubbing likely stems from our addiction to the high-dopamine world of social media and the internet, which are likely fueled by our fear of missing out and lack of self-control. 

Studies also found that the more you are phubbed, the more normal you think it is and the more you are likely to phub others. This perpetuates the untrue perception that phubbing is normal and healthy. It’s not. Relationships and individuals are healthier when they are present and actively engaging with the people they are with. 

Phone and Social Media Addiction

Did you know that the urge to check social media is stronger than the urge for sex? (source)

Americans’ daily time in front of their phones ranges from 3 hours, 31 minutes to 6 hours, 5 minutes. A large discrepancy is seen across generations, with Baby Boomers having the lowest screen time and Gen Zers having the highest. 

There’s little doubt that we are addicted, and although social media and other ways to virtually connect with others has positive effects, it’s also known to cause health problems such as:

Social media has its definite upsides. The spread of information is quicker, we are able to stay in contact with long-distance friends and families, and we can forge new bonds over the internet. 

However, the negatives are well-documented and unavoidable. A balance needs to be struck, and we are still in the process of finding one. 

How does phubbing affect relationships?

Phubbing has become so normalized that you may think it doesn’t affect your relationships. Unfortunately, this isn’t true. In fact, phubbing may just be ruining your relationship. Some studies have found that just the presence of a phone is enough to make people feel less connected.

Another study called the negative effect mobile phones have on interpersonal interactions the “tele-cocooning” effect, which explains when people’s attention are diverted from face-to-face exchanges we lose the art of in-person interactions. We forget how to talk to someone in real life, resulting in feelings of loneliness and low self-esteem, which may push us to engage virtually again, continuing the process. 

Phubbing has been shown to result in lower levels of: 

Spouses who phub each other have higher levels of depression

Phubbing is contrary to our basic needs of belongingness, self-esteem, meaningful existence, and control (source). It takes the connectedness out of a relationship, which can seriously undermine the satisfaction and longevity of it.

How to stop phubbing

The thought of forgoing social media and your phone can seem daunting, but you don’t have to exchange your smartphone in for a flip phone to start making positive changes in yourself and your relationship. 

The first step is to recognize if you are a Phuber. Look for these signs in yourself: 

  1. You have your phone on you all the time, often face-up on the table.
  2. You drop conversations in exchange for answering a notification. 
  3. You’re texting while having an in-person conversation. 
  4. You’re thinking about your phone while talking to someone face-to-face.
  5. You’ve been called out for your phone usage or for feeling unattached. 

Remember that phubbing is a very common experience now, and it doesn’t make you a bad person. Our brains have been molded to answer our phone and respond to the quick-hit of dopamine by looking at notifications. You’re fighting your brain’s biology by choosing to stay present. However, while it may be hard at times, it’s not impossible. Here are six steps you can take to decrease your phone time and stop phubbing: 

  1. Have “No Phone” times: Set aside time where you both keep your phone out of the room, on silent. The goal is to not even be able to hear when a notification comes in. This could be during dinner or a joint activity. Focus on asking questions and responding in meaningful ways. 
  2. Ask to be held accountable: It’s not feasible to keep your phone in the other room for every interaction, so if you’re serious about breaking your phubbing habit, tell your friends, family, and partner about your goal. Phubbing is often an unconscious response, so being called out can be enough to snap us back into the present moment. 
  3. Sit with your thoughts and feelings alone: Social media usage may be a coping strategy to avoid uncomfortable thoughts, emotions, and memories. While this is understandable, avoiding the problem will only make it grow. Find time to confront these emotions by yourself, out of reach from your phone. You might be surprised to find your desire to reach for your phone is less after you confront these hidden thoughts and emotions. 
  4. Block certain apps on your phone: Most phones have the capacity to block distracting apps from pushing notifications to your phone. Many people like to keep their phones on them in case of an emergency, so blocking only the apps that are highly distracting (like Tiktok, Instagram, Facebook, and Youtube) can give you the space you need to connect meaningfully face-to-face without stressing that you’re missing an important phone call. 
  5. Reward yourself: Keep track of how often you phub, and if you go a full day without phubbing your partner, give yourself a little treat! Make a game out of beating your social media addiction, and you will be more likely to follow through with it. 

Our brains are hardwired to look for the highest reward activity we can. Oftentimes, this is our phone. Social media capitalizes on that quick hit of dopamine, the happiness chemical our brain produces, we get when we open a notification. The apps are set up to suck you in. If you’re struggling to stop phubbing, have some compassion for yourself. You’re breaking an addiction, and that is no small feat.

How to deal with someone who is always on their phone

It can be emotionally taxing to have a partner who is phubbing you and can lead to a huge strain on your relationship. To help your partner break their social media addiction and stop phubbing, here are some tips: 

  • Check your own behavior: Often we start to phub because our partner is phubbing. It is a vicious cycle that can be hard to break. Make sure you’re not self-sabotaging the relationship and create a pact with each other to stop phubbing.
  • Call them out: Don’t let the phubbing behavior go unnoticed. Remember that usually phubbing is unconscious. They’re not purposefully ignoring you, so calling them out can bring them back to the present moment and save you both a lot of pain and miscommunication. 
  • Help them brainstorm solutions: Understand that willpower alone may not be enough to break their phubbing behavior. Instead, offer solutions like a no-phone dinner or a weekly date where phones are turned off. Think about what times of the day and week are most important to you, and ask your partner to be present during those moments. 
  • Have empathy, but know your own limits: It’s hard to break free from our phones in a society where everyone seems to be on them. Try to have empathy for your partner as they strive to break this addicting behavior. However, also be aware of your own mental health. Phubbing can make you feel lonely, isolated, and unloved. If they refuse to address their behavior, think carefully about what that means for you and your relationship

Feeling ignored is always hard, especially when they are ignoring you for virtual conversations. It can feel like you aren’t important to them, but remember that this behavior is based on an addiction to their phone and social media. Addictions can take time, energy, and support to break. If you and your partner need help navigating what an internet addiction and phubbing mean for your relationship, a couples counselor can help. 

If you are struggling with phubbing yourself, a therapist can also be of service. Reach out to our team to learn more.

Frequently Asked Questions

 Phubbing refers to the act of snubbing or ignoring someone in favor of using a smartphone or other electronic device. It's a combination of the words "phone" and "snubbing." When you are engaged in phubbing, you are paying more attention to your phone or device than to the person you are with.

 There can be several reasons why people engage in phubbing. In today's digital age, we are constantly connected and bombarded with notifications and information. It's easy to get caught up in the allure of our devices and become distracted. Phubbing may also be a result of habit or a coping mechanism to escape from uncomfortable situations or conversations.

 Phubbing can be toxic to relationships because it can make the other person feel ignored, unimportant, and disconnected. It sends a message that the person on the other end of the phone is more significant than the person in front of you. Over time, this can erode trust, intimacy, and emotional connection in a relationship, leading to feelings of resentment, loneliness, and dissatisfaction.

 Breaking the habit of phubbing requires conscious effort and awareness. Here are a few practical tips to help you stop phubbing:

  • Set boundaries: Establish designated device-free times or zones, such as during mealtimes or in the bedroom.

  • Practice active listening: Show genuine interest in the conversation and make an effort to actively engage with the person in front of you.

  • Turn off notifications: Minimize distractions by disabling unnecessary notifications on your phone.

  • Create tech-free rituals: Incorporate activities that don't involve screens, such as engaging in hobbies, taking walks, or having face-to-face conversations.

  • Lead by example: Be mindful of your own phubbing habits and make a conscious effort to prioritize real-life interactions over digital distractions.

  •  If you feel your partner is consistently phubbing you, it's important to address the issue openly and honestly. Here are some steps you can take:

  • Communicate your feelings: Express how phubbing makes you feel undervalued or disconnected. Use "I" statements to avoid sounding accusatory.

  • Set boundaries and expectations: Discuss your needs and establish mutually agreed-upon guidelines for device usage in your relationship.

  • Plan quality time: Schedule designated periods of undisturbed time together, such as date nights, where phones and other devices are put away.

  • Focus on connection: Engage in activities that promote bonding and intimacy, such as having meaningful conversations, engaging in shared hobbies, or exploring new experiences together.

  • Seek professional help if needed: If phubbing continues to be a persistent issue and causes distress in your relationship, consider seeking couples therapy. A therapist can provide guidance and facilitate healthy communication to address the underlying issues.

  • Remember, improving your relationship starts with open and compassionate communication, as well as a willingness to prioritize each other's emotional well-being.

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