The Costs of Phubbing
How often have you been out with a friend, a coworker, or even on a date, and the other person pulls out their phone? For many of us, this happens frequently—and generally we're not happy about it. Ugh, they're probably checking their text messages, reading the news, or scrolling through Twitter because we're not interesting or important enough to hold their attention.
Now, think about how many times you've been that person who pulls out their phone. This probably happens more often than you'd like to admit.
It's probably no surprise that past research has found that "phubbing"—snubbing someone by using your phone – negatively impacts people's experiences. For the person being phubbed, it can lead to lower relationship satisfaction, feelings of exclusion, and changes in the way you perceive your partner—for the worse. Despite recognizing the negative impact others' phone use has on us, 90% of people still report using their own phones in social situations. That's a huge number!
So, if we're bothered when other people use their phones when they're with us, why do we continue to use phones ourselves in the same types of situations?
People Have a Phubbing "Blindspot"
To find out how phone use impacted social experience, we first split people into two groups. Group one was asked to think back to a time when their conversation partner used their cell phone, but they didn't; group two was asked to think back to a time when they used their cell phone, but their partner didn't. Then we asked both groups how using the phone impacted the experience. Did their partner's phone use affect their feelings of connection to their partner, enjoyment of the experience, or distraction from the experience? And, from their perspective, how did they think their own phone use impacted their partner's experience?
Across four studies we found that another person's phone use was associated with more negative outcomes than one's own phone use. While people reported that another person's phone use led to lower feelings of social connection, less enjoyment, and higher distraction, they didn't think their own phone use had the same impact on their partner.
Why Do People Think Their Own Phone Use is Less Harmful?
To find out, we asked them. Answer: they believed there were different reasons for their phone use and others' phone use.
People thought that they used their own phones for more positive reasons than others, such as showing their partner something related to the conversation or doing something time-sensitive. They also felt they were overall better at juggling being on their phone and paying attention to their partner.
These beliefs can partially explain the phubbing blindspot. When people use their phones and believe it's for positive reasons, they also report better social experiences for the person they're phubbing. That also means if people believe someone is using their phone for less positive reasons—which is how we often view others' phone use – then the person being phubbed probably isn't having the best time.
What Does This Mean for Your Relationships?
Though your phone use may be influencing your relationships, that doesn't mean you should leave your phone at home or stop using it altogether.
Phones aren't going anywhere—they're an integral part of our lives. They benefit us on a daily basis, but it's important to recognize that they might also have costs that aren't immediately obvious.
The big takeaway here is that using your phone when you're spending time with others may negatively impact them in ways you can't see—and this could have lasting negative consequences for your social relationships down the line. Even if you feel justified in using your phone, other people might not see it in the same positive way. So, before you walk into a meeting, date, or other social engagement, perhaps consider putting your phone on silent—and enjoy your tech-free time with others!
For Further Reading
Barrick, E. M., Barasch, A., & Tamir, D.I. (2022). The unexpected social consequences of diverting attention to our phones. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 101, 104344. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jesp.2022.104344
Elyssa Barrick is a graduate student in Psychology at Case Western Reserve University. Her research focuses on the mechanisms underlying individual differences in social functioning.