Are You Phubbing Me? How Cell Phones Hijack Conversation

8 min
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The cell phone in your hand is not what we thought it would be. Research shows that we are trending away from talking to each other by phone. In fact, speaking isn’t even in the top ten things we do with a telephone anymore. See if the list below from a UK study matches how you use your phone ー chances are it is pretty close.

  1. Texting (88%)
  2. Email (70%)
  3. Social Media (62%)
  4. Camera (61%)
  5. Reading news (58%)
  6. Online shopping (56%)
  7. Checking the weather (54%)
  8. WhatsApp (51%)
  9. Banking (45%)
  10. Watching videos on YouTube (42%)

In the current day, it seems that talk is cheap. Speaking on the phone doesn’t have the premium value it once did.  Maybe this is due to the fact that for many people, texting is more efficient, while email provides us with a more reliable, longer-term way to keep track of conversations and information. 

Not using our phones for actually talking to each other is one thing, but the non-verbal way we tend to use these devices in the current day has become so pervasive that they’ve actually gone in the opposite direction: our smartphones are now an obstruction to face-to-face dialogue. Many people even look at their phones while engaging in in-person conversation with others, in a new digital form of snubbing that allows their cell phones to commandeer their attention. Specifically, they are phone-snubbing or “phubbing” ー a word created for the sole purpose of labeling this phenomenon.

In 2012, the McAnn advertising agency pulled together a group of lexicographers at the University of Sydney for a campaign for the Macquarie Dictionary. The agency's account director, Adrian Mills, is credited for having coined the term, and it has been in use ever since. Now part of the vernacular of digital audiences around the globe, the word has even been used in Facebook campaigns.

Since then, phubbing has become more than just a faux pas. Research indicates that it is a serious concern for physical and psychological well-being.  When people interrupt or detach from a conversation to look at their phones, this creates emotional whiplash. And in a surprising series of findings, the emotional impact isn’t just on the phubbee—it also seems to be an indication that the phubber may be depressed. Beyond friends and acquaintances, lovers who phub each other may have problems in the bedroom. Studies show phubbing reduces relationship satisfaction among romantic partners, and that it can also harm parent-child relationships

It has long been known that cell phones are a dangerous distraction while driving. Such use takes cognitive capacity and visual awareness away from the driver’s ability to attend to the road. Distracted drivers can’t process physical, sensory, motor, visual, and cognitive information, and as a result, they don’t drive as well. The result is poorer vehicle control with a greater risk of accidents, injuries, and death. No one has to convince you that looking at your cell phone while driving is a bad idea. It is, quite literally, an accident waiting to happen.

Phubbing may now be the emotional equivalent of distracted driving. You may not get into a serious accident while looking at your phone during a conversation, but you may be hurting yourself and others just the same. Scientists have labeled the chronic craving for social media Problematic Social Media Use (PSMU), and phubbing is a central part of what is being investigated. PSMU is often studied as an addiction because it meets the criteria: Like a drug, overusing one’s cell phone causes such reactions as mood modification, tolerance, withdrawal symptoms, and relapse.

This link to drug addiction is never so clear as through the terminology employed when talking about people overly dependent on cell phones, and those addicted to drugs: both are deemed “users”. After all, people who buy and operate a cell phone should properly be called customers or clients.  Instead, as pointed out in the 2020 documentary The Social Dilemma, directed by Jeff Orlowski, both drug addicts and cell phone owners are uniquely called “users”. An addiction is an addiction, and not all of them involve an unhealthy dependence on a physical substance.

Are We Addicted To Our Cell Phones?

There are various nuances to this behavioral and psychological addiction, too: Cell phone addiction is different from general internet addiction. The phone has a wide breadth of applications and uses. If you are dependent on your phone to the point where you have trouble not looking at it, a host of emotional reactions will follow. You will have more negative emotions like anxiety and depression, lower self-esteem, less psychological well-being, and many fewer positive emotions. 

Yet why do so many of us feel such an overpowering need to stay connected to our phones?   The top reasons are relationship maintenance, network expansion, and surveillance.  We are addicted to our phones because we want to stay connected, expand our connections, and keep an eye on everybody. What is curious about phubbing is that while we are with someone and know exactly where they are, we are still looking for others to connect with and watch through our phones.

If you think you are impervious to phubbing (whether that’s doing it to someone else, or having been phubbed yourself), think again: according to various different surveys, 49-72% of us have been phubbed. The impact of this behavior at work can be devastating, with employees who have been phubbed by their boss feeling their work is not valued, which then deteriorates their self-confidence. In school, phubbing is seen as a major distraction, and in relationships, it is now widely noted that the satisfaction between partners is negatively affected by phubbing. After all, who wants a romantic partner that is having an affair with their cell phone? 

But all of these studies rally around the phubbed, the victims in the situation. Some intriguing research out of China has found that the person actually doing the phubbing may also be just as emotionally overwhelmed.

In a paper published in December 2021 in the Journal of Affective Disorders, a team of researchers from various universities in China found that phubbing not only had a deleterious effect on the mental health of the phubbed — it also affects the mental health and well-being of the phubbers. In studying over 900 primary and secondary school teachers, the researchers found that phubbing enhanced job burnout and increased the risk of depression. This is an extraordinary finding, because it means that although there is a powerful impact on the receiving end, the act of offending may be causing even greater issues.

While this is surprising at first — that phubbing would so deeply affect the offenders — it makes sense. The overuse of mobile phones is already known as a predictor of depression, anxiety, loss of sleep, and low self-esteem. Taken with the reduced quality of communication phubbing can cause — along with the destruction of interpersonal relationships — this reduced relationship satisfaction confirms the feelings of burnout. By not paying attention during conversations in favor of diddling with their phones, the offenders reinforce their isolation and burnout status.

How To Stop Phubbing People

If you are on the receiving end of this behavior, there are three things you can do if someone phubs you. Remember, according to the research, if someone is phubbing you, it may be saying more about their emotional state than they realize. Here are three ways to cope.

  1. As soon as someone phubs you, state the obvious ー but in a compassionate and non-confronting way. Try saying something like: “It looks like there is something important you need to attend to. I can come back later, or we can talk at another time if this is inconvenient.” This lets them know that the conversation you were having isn’t going forward, that you are not going to ignore their distraction, and that you are willing to be flexible. All of these things move the conversation toward a resolution, rather than trying to ignore what’s happening.
  2. A somewhat more direct approach is to say: “Do you need me to reschedule? I will need feedback on some of the things I have to cover, and it looks like you have something important going on”. This trick does the same as the first one, but it gives the individual a clearer message that both your time and message are important for them to acknowledge. Once again, it highlights the fact that if they can’t be present, then you aren’t interested in staying in the conversation.
  3. Finally, there is a soft and non-direct way that can nudge the person back into the conversation ー by saying, “Do you need me to wait until you take care of that?” This is quite lovely in that it makes it known that their behavior has been noted, and you are asking for some guidance from them on how you should proceed. This method may be gentle, but it is still powerful, as it awakens the phubber to the fact that their behavior has had a consequence. 

In every instance of dealing with a phubber, the key is to not let it go unnoticed. Avoidance allows the behavior to continue ー along with the negative feelings it can create. By politely speaking up, you may not only be helping to prevent a hijacking of the conversation and one’s attention, you may even be helping to alert someone to the existence of this emotionally taxing behavior.


Written by Dr. Dan Tomasulo, an American psychologist, writer, and professor, and the Academic Director and core faculty at the Spirituality Mind Body Institute, Teachers College, Columbia University, New York. He is the author of Learned Hopefulness: The Power of Positivity to Overcome Depression. Dan’s passion is positive psychology and the science of happiness, helping people focus on their strengths and cultivating their best selves so they can lead meaningful and fulfilling lives.

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All of the content on our website is thoroughly researched to ensure that the information shared is evidence-based. For more information, please visit the academic journals and other resources that influenced this article: The Relationship Between Phubbing And The Depression Of Primary And Secondary School Teachers: A Moderated Mediation Model Of Rumination And Job Burnout; My Life Has Become A Major Distraction From My Cell Phone: Partner Phubbing And Relationship Satisfaction Among Romantic Partners; Cell-Phone Addiction: A Review; Exploring The Role Of Social Media Use Motives, Psychological Well-Being, Self-Esteem, And Affect In Problematic Social Media Use.

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