The surprising effect phubbing can have on your relationship

Posted by
Emily Reynolds
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We all have one: a friend who refuses to put down their phone in the pub or at dinner. But new research suggests that this might not just be simply annoying…

It’s definitely annoying when your friend ignores you in favour of their phone when you’re having a drink, watching a film or having dinner. It’s definitely rude. 

But what you might not know is that it could actually be having a significant – and negative – affect on your relationships

That’s according to a new study from the University of Kent, which found that looking at your phone around other people (sometimes known as phone snubbing or “phubbing”) can “threaten our basic human needs”.

The study looked at the effect of phubbing in one-to-one to social situations – and found that it “significantly and negatively affected the way the person being phubbed felt about their interaction with the other person”.

153 participants were asked to view an animation of a conversation between two people and told to imagine themselves as one of the pair. Each participant was given one of three situations to imagine themselves in – no phubbing, partial phubbing or “extensive phubbing”. 

And as phubbing increased, people experienced “greater threats to their fundamental needs”, perceived the communication quality to be poorer and the relationship between the pair “less satisfying”. Researchers also said that phubbing particularly affected “the need to belong” – an important factor in human happiness. 

communications concept: girl using a digital generated smart phone. All screen graphics are made up.
Varoth Chotpitayasunondh and Professor Karen Douglas, who conducted the study from the University of Kent’s School of Psychology, described phubbing as a “specific form of social exclusion that threatens people’s fundamental human needs for belonging, self-esteem, meaningful existence and control”. 

They also point out that phubbing, unlike other forms of social exclusion, “can take place anywhere and at any time as someone reaches for their phone and ignores their conversation partner”. 

It’s not the first time research has looked at the negative impact of phubbing, either. A 2016 study published in the journal Computers in Human Behaviour – and depressingly titled ‘My life has become a major distraction from my cell phone’ – also found that phubbing has a “negative impact on satisfaction” within romantic relationships. This could even have an impact on overall life satisfaction, researchers argued. 

Young woman using cell phone to send text message on social network at night. Closeup of hands with computer laptop in background

“Importantly, phubbing was found to indirectly impact depression through relationship satisfaction and ultimately life satisfaction,” researchers wrote, also nothing the “ever-increasing use of cell phones to communicate”.

And in 2017, a study from the journal Personality and Individual Differences found that the link between life dissatisfaction and partner phubbing was particularly strong when partners had been together for more than seven years.

Single? Phubbing could also affect your friendships. 

Research suggests that simply having a phone on the table when you’re hanging out with friends can affect how close you feel to them, how connected you are with them, and how high quality the conversation is between you.  

“It is ironic that cell phones, originally designed as a communication tool, may actually hinder rather than foster interpersonal connectedness,” wrote two researchers in a study entitled ‘Phubbed and Alone’. So put down that phone – it could do you, and your relationships, the world of good. 

Images: Getty / iStock