I think using your smartphone when you’re with other people is rude, but I still do it all the time. I try to apologize when I do—“Sorry, I just need to text this person/send this email/check this map real quick”—but lately I’ve felt even more rude asking someone else to stop using their phone. It seems needy and unkind to shame them for not giving me their full attention at every moment. When the whole gang is having an iPhone break, the path of least resistance is just to get my phone out, too, and thumb through Instagram.
Focusing on your phone in a social setting is known as “phubbing”—a portmanteau of “phone” and “snubbing.” (Hey, I didn’t make it up.) A new study published in Computers in Human Behavior looks at what motivates people to phub, and how it seems to have become just a normal part of life.
A group of 276 participants took several questionnaires that measured their experiences of phubbing and being phubbed, as well as scales for internet addiction, smartphone addiction, self-control, and fear of missing out. These all bore out in the expected ways; the people most likely to be glued to a screen while surrounded by friends were low in self-control, high in FOMO, and higher on the scales for internet and smartphone addiction. (It’s still questionable whether one can really be “addicted” to the internet, but these scales basically measure whether a person uses it compulsively, and whether it interferes with their life.)
The most interesting thing this study found was that people who reported phubbing more often were also more likely to be phubbed themselves. The authors, from the University of Kent, suggest several possible reasons for this. One is a simple retaliation—if you’re trying to talk to someone, and they’re on their phone, well, two can play at that game.
Actually a lot of people can play at that game. If one person in a group is using their phone, that opens the door for others, who may start to think it’s socially acceptable just because they keep seeing people do it. After all, why would so many people be doing it if it wasn’t okay? Wouldn’t someone call them out on it?
Another reason is that phubbing is susceptible to the false-consensus effect, when people assume that others share their opinions and beliefs. If someone thinks it’s no big deal to check their Twitter notifications at a group dinner, they may well assume that everybody else is fine with it too, so they won’t feel social pressure not to do it.
All of these things may account for the ripple effect I’ve sometimes felt, as a hangout turns from “group time” to “phone time.” At first we might pull out our phones out of spite for someone else who’s doing it, but the more we do it, perhaps the less rude it seems.
“In an environment where people are constantly switching from being the protagonists and recipients of this behavior, our data suggests that phubbing becomes seen as the norm,” the researchers write.
Previous research has found that people were less satisfied with their romantic relationships the more their partner was a phubber. It will be interesting to see if this stays the case as the behavior becomes more normalized. Perhaps this is just life in a smartphone-heavy world, but remember this: As ye phub, so shall ye be phubbed in return.