Lindsay Carter: The Art of Phubbing

Smartphones and phubbing are ruining our communication skills and interpersonal relationships by serving as distractions from conversations. So, what exactly is “phubbing”? According to the Oxford dictionary, the noun phubbing is “The practice of ignoring one’s companion or companions in order to pay attention to one’s phone or other mobile device”. Phubbing has become the norm in part because of smartphone addiction, but also as a way to avoid social anxiety. However, phubbing is actually decreasing the quality and satisfaction of conversations according to a survey study conducted by Chotpitayasunondh and Douglas. It makes sense that the less attention that is focused on a conversation would upset the other person involved, since conversation serves as a pivotal method of communication. There is a reason that children are taught to read, write, and speak before they learn how to send a text message, at least for now.

I am the first to plead guilty to phubbing others out of the desperation of facing my social anxiety in a conversation. Talking to people is hard enough, and making sure that they know you are listening/care is even more challenging. It is almost easier to pull out my smartphone for a quick break or distraction from the topic at hand, whether the other person realizes it or not. However, a double standard exists between phubbing others and being phubbed. Nobody, including myself, desires to have the focus be taken away from them during a face-to-face conversation. As humans, we crave attention and are psychologically benefited from participating in conversation with others. Chotpitayasunondh and Douglas’ study found that those who fell victim to their partner’s phubbing of them were generally dissatisfied with the quality of their conversation.

In his article School Bullying as a Collective Action: Stigma Processes and Identity Struggling, Robert Thornberg discusses the effects of the stigmatization of young children when trying to fit-in with their peers. To avoid negative labels, students in his study would imitate the actions of their peers in an attempt to fit-in. Those who did not change their actions were subjected to labels and effectively stigmatized from communication with their peers. These events are similar to people of all ages who use smartphones with the intent of doing so as a coping mechanism for social anxiety. Phubbing creates a diversion from face-to-face conversations and allows users to still fit-in with their peers through the ability to communicate on a mobile platform, thus eliminating the social anxiety involved in those face-to-face conversations.

Smartphones, partly thanks to phubbing, have also been proven to hinder the attention span of their users because the human brain by nature is not skilled at multitasking. A study conducted by communications experts Ugur and Koc examined the use of smartphones and mobile technology in the classroom, and how both students and educators are affected by phubbing. They write, “This behavior, research suggests, has become more habitual, automatic, and distracting”. Much like in face-to-face conversations, the attention is drawn away from the teacher and subject matter and wasted on a smartphone instead.

Phubbing has become a serious issue for anyone who owns a smartphone or is constantly around someone who does. The intrinsic value of a face-to-face conversation cannot be replicated on a smartphone screen, and is definitely neglected through the act of phubbing. If we all took a minute out of our day to reflect on the conversations that we have had as well as the amount of time spent on our phones, I strongly believe that communication skills can be recovered. With the exponentially growing amount of smartphone users, it is our responsibility to point-out instances of phubbing in hopes of saving communication.