How To Talk To Someone Who Won't Put Their Phone Down

Feel like everyone you know has a minor (or major!) cell phone addiction? Here's how to get them to put down their smartphone and stay focused in the moment.

Ever been out to eat with a friend who seems more engaged with TikTok videos or texts than you or their meal? You’ve been phubbed!

Ever visit with your parents (before social distancing, at least) and find yourself shocked by how disinterested they seem in you ― their child! ― and how deeply interested they seem in the Facebook app? Phubbed again!

To be phubbed is to be snubbed by way of the phone (phone + snub = phubbed).

As a pithy portmanteau, it never quite caught on in spite of the coverage it got on lifestyle sites (including this one). Still, as a human behavior, we see phubbing everywhere, including in our closest relationships.

In a 2017 Baylor University study of 143 people in romantic relationships, 70 percent of participants said that cell phones “sometimes,” “often,” “very often” or “all the time” interfered in their interactions with their partners. Anyone who’s ever had to bite their tongue through dinner with a phone-obsessed friend knows it’s a sizable problem in platonic relationships, too.

As we slowly ease back into something resembling pre-pandemic life, we can expect to get phubbed all the more by friends, family and co-workers.

What is it about this behavior that’s so off-putting? If you care about the person who’s ignoring you in favor of their phone, it can feel like a big phub you to you and your precious time.

“This behavior is incredibly frustrating because it gives the message that someone or something is more interesting than you,” said Jennifer Chappell Marsh, a marriage and family therapist in San Diego. “It can feel like outright rejection.”

Luckily, there are ways to level with even the worst smartphone offenders. Below, Chappell Marsh and other therapists share what you can do to establish boundaries around phone use with people you care about.

Don’t take it personally.

Again, while this may feel like a direct insult to you ― “Am I that boring? Why did you even come out tonight if you were going to be on your phone all night?”― it usually has nothing to do with you. Look at it as a small personal failing on the part of your pal, not an indictment of how interesting you are.

“When you get phubbed, take a deep breath and try to recognize that even though it feels like rejection, it’s likely more that the partner has an impulse issue,” Chappell Marsh said.

Then, the therapist says to very delicately relay your observation to the phubber.

“This might sound like, ‘Is everything OK? I’m noticing you seem preoccupied with your phone,’” she offered.

It's OK to establish boundaries with any phubber you're close to.
Maskot via Getty Images
It's OK to establish boundaries with any phubber you're close to.

If it’s a close relationship, get inside the head of your phubber.

If you’re experiencing this issue within your romantic relationship, it’s important to understand what your partner is getting out of constantly using their phone, said Kate Stoddard, an associate marriage and family therapist at Wellspace SF.

“Is it related to checking their work email or Slack and needing to set boundaries?” she said. “Is it their way of taking time for themselves and having a nice distraction from their day?”

Or is it something deeper that’s worth investigating within your relationship: Is the phone being used to avoid something unpleasant happening between the two of you?

“Once the reason(s) for constant phone use is identified, then the couple should agree on reasonable boundaries for phone use,” Stoddard told HuffPost.

When establishing boundaries with a partner, use “I” statements.

Maybe your boundary is “no phone during dinner” or “let’s keep phone use to a minimum on our weekends.” If your S.O. violates these boundaries, make them aware of that with a gentle reminder, using “I” statements, Stoddard said.

“For example, ‘I’m feeling dismissed right now and would love to have your attention, remember we discussed setting this limit?’” she said.

The reason “I” statements are so effective here ― and in relationship conflicts in general ― is because they center what you feel and need and leave blame out of the equation.

“If you use “you” language ― ‘Do you realize you’re always on your phone?’ you run the risk of making your partner feel defensive,” Stoddard said.

Putting your phone down during a dinner or friends trip can do wonders for reestablishing bonds.
10'000 Hours via Getty Images
Putting your phone down during a dinner or friends trip can do wonders for reestablishing bonds.

You can create boundaries about phone usage with your friends, too.

If this issue is between you and a friend, setting a boundary might mean asking if it would be OK to agree for all parties to put their phone out of reach when you go out to dinner. Or it may mean agreeing on a time frame to check the phone, Chappell Marsh said.

“In the moment this might sound like, ‘Hey, when our drinks get here I’d love to put our phones away so we can enjoy each other’ or ‘Let’s put our phones in the other room until the end of the movie so we can watch it together.’”

If it’s your partner who’s phubbing you, try going on a phone-free weekend vacation.

Spencer Scott, a psychologist in Santa Monica, California, once worked with a couple who went to Palm Springs for the weekend and agreed to some electronic ground rules beforehand: Basically, they agreed that their phones would stay powered down and be stowed away in their suitcases during the entirety of the weekend.

“Each were allowed to turn on their phone for just five minutes once a day, just enough time to check in and make sure there isn’t a crisis waiting for them back home,” Scott told HuffPost previously.

At the end of weekend, the couple “raved about how they’d been able to be more mindful of the little things ― the refreshing pool, laughs with one another over dinner, and some truly connected intimacy.”

Be patient with phubbers.

As you probably know, mindlessly scrolling through your phone is a really addictive habit; we’re all a little obsessed with social media. It probably won’t be easy for your phubbing partner or friend to stop.

They might even experience withdrawal symptoms; in a 2015 study published in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, researchers had young people give up their phones and found that the participants performed worse on mental tasks when they were in phone “withdrawal.” They felt physiological symptoms, like increased heart rate and blood pressure.

“The research clearly shows how addictive our phones are,” Stoddard said. “This is going to be a difficult habit for people to break so be patient with one another!”

We’ve all been there: Somehow, you’ve found yourself in a conversation with a person you have nothing in common with, someone who intimidates you or someone who won’t stop complaining. These kinds of interactions can be uncomfortable, to say the least. Our HuffPost series How to Talk to Just About Anyone will help you navigate these conversations and others. Go here for all the latest.