What Is “phubbing” And How Does It Affect Our Relationships?

We remain glued to our smartphones, and this affects our lives.

Since the smartphone boom in the middle of the last decade, the presence of these devices in our lives has only grown exponentially. 

The percentage of inhabitants of our planet who are users of a mobile phone is 51%, that is, no less than 3,790 million people. This percentage of smartphone users rises, for example, in Spain to 80% of the adult population. Regarding the social use of the phone, 42% access networks such as Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter or Instagram on a regular basis in order to interact with others. In light of these data (Fernández, 2016), we can assume that the way we relate to each other is in a process of constant change.

“With their constant beeping, ringing, vibrating and hissing, phones are like a wayward child who won’t behave until he or she gets what they want. The desire of our telephones is to be constantly attended. ” (Roberts and David (2016)

What is phubbing and why is it becoming normalized?

Due to the need to describe a social phenomenon that did not exist not many years ago, the Australian Macquaire dictionary developed during 2012 a campaign around the world dedicated to familiarizing the population with the word phubbing (Pathak, 2013). Combination of the words phone and snubbing , this term refers to the fact of ignoring someone in a social gathering while paying attention to the mobile phone instead of talking to that person face to face.

This behavior, certainly harmful in any social interaction, is becoming common. Varoth Chotpitayasunondh and Karen Douglas (2016) have recently investigated the psychological causes and consequences of this behavior. These authors discovered that, as could be predicted intuitively , one of the causes that leads us to deliberately ignore the person we are with is mobile phone addiction.

Phubbing and smartphone addiction

Among the factors that predict  mobile phone addiction, and therefore phubbing, is Internet addiction and its excessive use, which is closely related to other non-chemical addictions such as  gambling. 

As a predictor of Internet and smartphone addiction, these researchers from the University of Kent found that an influencing factor was the  user’s ability to self – control . The less self-control, the more likely it is to become addicted to the Internet, to the smartphone and, therefore, the more likely to be phubbing. A last important factor that was identified was  the fear and concern of being left off the hook from the events, happenings and conversations that are taking place in the social circle, causing problematic use of the mobile phone.

Phubbing behavior, the authors argue, is becoming normal and acceptable due to what is conceptualized in social psychology as “reciprocity.” Repeatedly ignoring other people by being aware of the mobile causes others, intentionally or not, to return this social action.

Despite the fact that it is not pleasant for anyone to be ignored, roles are often exchanged throughout different social interactions, one being “ignorant” at times and ignored at others. Because social learning is basic in the acquisition of new behaviors, this exchange, according to the researchers, leads us to assume the false consensus that this way of acting is something acceptable and even normal. The authors confirmed this by finding that those who were the most ignorant and those who tended to be the most ignored saw these behaviors as more socially accepted.

How does phubbing affect our close relationships?

The mere presence (visible) of a mobile phone on the table can reduce the perception of closeness, trust and quality of conversation between two people, this effect being more pronounced when discussing emotionally relevant topics (Przybylski and Weinstein, 2013).

Around 70% of the participants in a study on the influence of technologies on couple relationships (McDaniel and Coyne, 2016), stated that computers or smartphones interfered in some way with their coexistence. The higher the frequency of interference from technologies, the greater the impact on their well-being (less satisfaction with the relationship, with life in general, and more  depressive symptoms ).

Therefore, this phubbing behavior is not limited to sporadic encounters between friends, co-workers or classmates, etc. rather, it can directly affect the structure of our most intimate relationships and have some influence on our quality of life.

Phubbing in couple relationships

James Roberts and Meredith David (2016), from Baylor University, decided to study the effects of partner phubbing or p-phubbing , that is, interruptions to look at the mobile phone during a conversation while in the presence of the sentimental partner. Due to the wide presence of these smartphones, as mentioned above, frequent interruptions are highly likely to occur in people who share a large amount of time, such as a marriage or any couple.

Due to the attachment needs of the human being, these authors hypothesize that for a quality relationship to occur, the mere presence of the couple is not enough, but that certain affective exchanges must be given that must be reciprocal. These exchanges, as the use and presence of smartphones progresses, may be diminished. Therefore, due to the interruptions caused by p-phubbing, the needs for attachment and attention may not be satisfied in the same way that they are without the interference of certain technologies.

Conflicts aggravated by phubbing

As for the results of the study by James Roberts and Meredith David (2016), as predicted , the higher the frequency of phubbing, the higher the number of conflicts related to mobile use.  

Phubbing and mobile conflicts were good predictors of the quality of relationships, that is, when there were numerous conflicts and couples were phubbing, the quality of the relationship decreased significantly. Furthermore, since the quality of the couple’s relationship is a factor that influences the quality of life, it could be argued that interrupting our face-to-face relationships by using the mobile phone can have a negative impact on our long-term well-being. This decrease in the quality of life can indirectly cause phubbing to create a favorable context for the appearance of depressive symptoms progressively.

It is important to note that in couples who interrupted their relationship more frequently due to mobile, the number of conflicts was even higher in those in which one of the partners had an insecure attachment style, compared to the secure attachment style. People with an insecure attachment style, related to cold affective relationships and a greater desire to control their partner, would therefore be more affected by the slights caused by their partner.


Taking into account that, currently, the percentage of divorces with respect to marriages stands at 50% (without taking into account the separations of the rest of couples), the empirical evidence provided by this type of studies should be useful to make us aware of our acts.

This awareness does not imply that to live a fruitful relationship as a couple we must isolate ourselves from the benefits that new technologies bring with them, but rather make correct use of them. Just as a person can subjugate their partner by exerting excessive control over them and preventing them, for example, from going to meetings with their friends, a mobile phone (something inert) can deprive us of moments with our loved ones. Taking advantage of our “powerful”  frontal lobe, we must take control of our relationships and be able to guide our lives towards the best possible quality of life. It would be of little use to live in an online world if we disconnect from what is truly important.

Bibliographic references:

  • Chotpitayasunondh, V., & Douglas, KM (2016). How «phubbing» becomes the norm: The antecedents and consequences of snubbing via smartphone. Computers in Human Behavior, 63, 9-18.
  • Fernández, S. (2016). Spain, smartphone territory. [online] Xatakamovil.com.
  • McDaniel, BT, & Coyne, SM (2016). “Technoference”: The interference of technology in couple relationships and implications for women’s personal and relational well-being. Psychology of Popular Media Culture, 5 (1), 85.
  • Pathak, S. (2013). McCann Melbourne Made Up a Word to Sell a Print Dictionary. [online] Adage.com.
  • Przybylski, AK, & Weinstein, N. (2013). Can you connect with me now? How the presence of mobile communication technology influences face-to-face conversation quality. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 30 (3), 237-246.
  • Roberts, JA, & David, ME (2016). My life has become a major distraction from my cell phone: Partner phubbing and relationship satisfaction among romantic partners. Computers in Human Behavior, 54, 134-141.

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