P-phubbing is Ruining Your Relationships

By Annalee Newitz on at

Have you ever p-phubbed? You know, snubbed your partner by checking your phone during your date? Or leaving your iPhone out within reach while you’re on the sofa snogging? Now two researchers say there’s strong evidence that your p-phubbing is wrecking your relationships and making you depressed.

The term phubbing was coined a few years ago, shortly after a group at Sydney University created a “stop phubbing” PSA campaign. The portmanteau of “phoning” and “snubbing” never seemed to fully catch on, despite the fact that we humans phub constantly.

Still, the term seems to have caught on among US academics. In a recent paper published in Computers in Human Behavior, Baylor University business professors James Roberts and Meredith David did a series of surveys to determine whether p-phubbing (partner phubbing) was a thing — and if so, was it causing problems? Roberts and David polled over 150 men and women on Mechanical Turk who were in relationships, asking them the following questions about their phubbing experiences (answers are on a sliding scale of 1 for never and 5 for always):

1. During a typical mealtime that my partner and I spend together,my partner pulls out and checks his/her cell phone.

2. My partner places his or her cell phone where they can see it when we are together.

3. My partner keeps his or her cell phone in their hand when he or she is with me.

4. When my partner’s cell phone rings or beeps, he/she pulls it out even if we are in the middle of a conversation.

5. My partner glances at his/her cell phone when talking to me.

6. During leisure time that my partner and I are able to spend together, my partner uses his/her cell phone.

7. My partner does not use his or her phone when we are talking.

8. My partner uses his or her cell phone when we are out together.

9. If there is a lull in our conversation, my partner will check his or her cell phone.

Then they gave their subjects some other tests, to measure their relationship styles and general happiness levels.

What Roberts and David found probably comes as no surprise to anyone who has ever argued with a partner who can’t stop checking their messages even when you’re telling them something kind of urgent. They found that people who have “anxious” attachment styles in relationships ((in other words, people who fear being ignored or abandoned) react more strongly when their partner uses a mobile device. Furthermore, they found that there’s a strong correlation between phubbing and conflicts over mobile devices.

Ultimately, they say in their paper, the people who experience the most phubbing in their relationships also tend to have more conflict ... and this leads to general unhappiness in their lives. So p-phubbing has an indirect but measurable effect on happiness, especially if you have an anxious attachment style already.

Of course, we don’t know anything about the causality here. Roberts and David admit that it’s possible that people who are already unhappy in their relationships are doing more p-phubbing. And p-phubbing may increase as relationships progress from the honeymoon phase into more regular day-to-day partnerships. Nevertheless, they assert boldly that “the institution of marriage (and romantic relationships in general) is under attack” from p-phubbing.

That’s right. Blame iOS and Android for your miserable relationship. It’s not you. It’s the technology.

Read the full paper at Computers in Human Behavior