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how phones make us bad company


So you’ve been phubbed. Or maybe you did the phubbing. Maybe it was mutual.

No matter who started it, phubbing is bad, bad, bad. Didn’t your mom raise you better?

The word “phubbing” was coined to describe “phone snubbing”: ignoring someone in front of you in favor of your phone. Phubbing recently celebrated its tenth anniversary. That is to say that the word was invented about ten years ago, in May 2012.

The Macquarie Dictionary, the first and last word on Australian English, has hired advertising agency McCann to come up with a new word to express this horrible display of bad manners (at best) and deep social alienation (at worst) .

The word was coined primarily as part of a campaign to raise awareness of the issue and – it was hoped – to reduce it. The campaign seems to have been more successful on the first objective than on the second.

If you read anything else on phubbing, you’ll likely come across references to a 2016 study in the journal Computers in Human Behavior titled “How ‘Phubbing’ Becomes the Norm: The Antecedents and Consequences of Smartphone Snobbery.”

This study found that more than 40% of its respondents reported attacking others several times a day; more than 50 percent of respondents said they were phubbed multiple times a day.

Even more studies have shown that phone snobbery can make conversations and even marriages less satisfying. One, on couples in China, determined that phubbing is a risk factor for depression in long-term marriages (defined as those lasting more than seven years).

Imagine all the things we think weaken our relationships. Think how lucky we think people are when they get past the seven-year itch. Now consider losing all of that because we can’t take our eyes off Twitter.

In 2018, a study published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology found that phone snobbery had a detrimental effect on what have been described as four “basic needs”: belonging, self-esteem, meaningful existence, and Control.

In other words, being phubby makes us feel left out, diminished, or insignificant—feelings not particularly healthy to bring into a relationship.

And what’s too easy a consolation if you find yourself on the receiving end of a phub?

The convenience of your own phone, of course. Thus phubbing breeds phubbing: an epidemic is born.

You might think that’s not such a big concern for us here at TT, but according to data compiled by the World Bank, TT’s estimated mobile phone subscriptions in 2020 were 142 per 100 people. This is more phones per capita than the same data estimates for the European Union (121 subscriptions per 100 people) and the United States (106 subscriptions per 100 people).

Is there a word for what it can become? Chain phubbing? Group phubbing? Phub-a-thons?

The previously mentioned 2016 smartphone snobing study found three key predictors of phubbing: internet addiction, fear of missing out (or FOMO – yes, it’s not just something kids say , this is the subject of a legitimate scientific investigation) and poor self-control (itself a factor in addictive behavior).

Phubbing is not considered an addiction per se, but rather a function of a lack of impulse control perhaps exacerbated by internet or smartphone addiction. So if you’re obsessed with monitoring social media channels, WhatsApp groups, checking email or football scores and you use your phone to do so, you might just be a phubber.

I want to say that the good news is that controlling phubbing can be as easy as hanging up the phone.

But it’s not. You have already had this experience. It’s not lost on you.

You and the family – or worse, you and a date – or worse, you and your boss – go out to dinner. You sit down and as you do so, you pick up your phone and lay it neatly on the table next to the cutlery. Maybe the other person is doing the same thing.

What that translates to simple-human (it’s a language I’m working on making up) is: It’s great to be here with you. I hope you don’t mind if all my social ties and personal interests join us at the table.

What do we have left? We need good manners. Keep phones turned off and out of sight during meals or leave your phone in the car when you go out for a date or meeting. Pay a little more attention to the person in front of you and less to the plastic rectangle in your pocket. Plug into the real and the virtual.

Phones are friends, not enemies. Until they are. Or until they start reporting more harmful behavioral traits.

Be sure to talk to your doctor or therapist if you want to know more about what you read here. In many cases, there is no single solution or diagnosis to a mental health problem. Many people suffer from more than one condition.