What Is 'Phubbing'? And Can It Really Wreck Your Relationships?

Here's what you can do to help you connect better with friends, family and partners.
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You’re out on a date, at coffee with friends or out for dinner with your parents and siblings. What’s the common denominator? Yup, you guessed it — phones.

It seems we can’t do anything social without the other person scrolling their phone while mumbling, “Yeah, uh uh”. It can get so frustrating.

So frustrating actually, that there’s a name for it — ‘phubbing’.

What is phubbing?

The term comes from a portmanteau of the words ‘phone’ and ‘snubbing’. Literally, snubbing someone while using your phone.

The act’s so widespread that the Cambridge Dictionary has a description for the term: “the act of ignoring someone you are with and giving attention to your mobile phone instead.”

Look, we’re all guilty of it. But it can be revolutionary for our relationships to set some boundaries around phone use when you’re hanging out with people. After all, our lives are so busy, the time we get together is more important than ever.

And even when we know we’re doing it, it can be hard to break the habit. Why is that? “Social media companies design the interfaces of their mobile apps to encourage us to constantly wonder what we might find on them next,” explains Dr Daniel Black, a senior lecturer in the School of Media, Film and Journalism at Monash University in an interview with Fashion Journal.

He says that this tendency to ‘zone out’ when we’re using our devices drags our attention away from loved ones when socialising, and to fill any little gaps in conversation with a quick check of our phones.

“It trains us to fill any idle time with little hits of stimulation that come from looking at social media and enjoying the sense of anticipation about what we might find,” he says. “Because in-person social interaction is slower-paced and has lulls, this creates a temptation to fill those little gaps with a bit more of that stimulation.”

So, our brains have essentially been trained to be constantly searching for the next hit of stimulation. Researchers have found phones literally trigger a response in the same areas as slot machines and gambling do. It’s no wonder we can’t put them down.

How to stop phubbing

So, how to catch ourselves in the act and try to live more consciously in the moment?

It all starts with communicating our boundaries. Now, some of us need to have our phones on loud for updates on maybe family being ill or if you’re a carer, but a lot of the time, we can all afford to switch our devices to silent and stow in our bags for the time it takes to have a coffee.

“In closer relationships, it may be appropriate to discuss a set of shared principles about when it’s appropriate to give our attention to our phones,” recommends Dr Black. “We all need to use our phones sometimes, but in the vast majority of cases, phubbing doesn’t come from necessary phone use — it just comes from getting distracted.”

For family and partners who we might feel more able to set stricter boundaries with than colleagues and friends, that could look like having a designated ‘phone basket’ that everyone pops their phones in to enjoy a fully present dinner or round of drinks together.