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Are you ‘phubbing’ right now? What it is and why science says it’s bad for your relationships

Hannah Jewell explains the murky origins of the word "phubbing." Have you been "phubbed"? (Video: Lindsey Sitz/The Washington Post)

“Phubbing” is the practice of snubbing others in favor of our mobile phones. We’ve all been there, as either victim or perpetrator. We may no longer even notice when we’ve been phubbed (or are phubbing), it has become such a normal part of life. However, research is revealing the profound impact this sort of snubbing can have on our relationships and well-being.

There’s an irony here. When we’re staring at our phones, we’re often connecting with someone on social media or through texting. Sometimes, we’re flipping through our pictures the way we once turned the pages of photo albums, remembering moments with people we love. Unfortunately, however, this can severely disrupt our actual, present-moment, in-person relationships, which also tend to be our most important ones.

In a study poignantly titled, “My life has become a major distraction from my cell phone,” Meredith David and James Roberts suggest that overuse of our phones in the presence of others  can lead to a decline in one of the most important relationships we can have as an adult: the one with our life partner.

According to their study of 145 adults, phubbing decreases marital satisfaction, in part because it leads to conflict over phone use. A follow-up study by Chinese scientists assessed 243 married adults with similar results: Partner phubbing, because it was associated with lower marital satisfaction, contributed to greater likelihood of depression.

Technology is meant to grab your attention. But how can we live without technology consuming our lives? Find out how in this video that focused on family. (Video: Jhaan Elker/The Washington Post)

This behavior also also affects our casual friendships. Not surprisingly to anyone who has been phubbed, phone users are generally seen as less polite and attentive. When someone’s eyes wander, we intuitively know what brain studies also show: The mind is wandering. We feel unheard, disrespected, disregarded.

A set of studies actually showed that just having a phone out and present during a conversation (say, on the table between you) interferes with your sense of connection to the other person, the feelings of closeness experienced, and the quality of the conversation.  Especially during meaningful conversations, you lose the opportunity for true and authentic connection to another person, the core tenet of any friendship or relationship. These findings hold true regardless of people’s age, ethnicity, gender, or mood. We feel more empathy when smartphones are put away.

This makes sense. When we are on our phones, we are not looking at other people and not reading their facial expressions. We don’t hear the nuances in their tone of voice, or notice their body posture.

So how do those who are phubbed react to being ignored?

According to a study published in March of this year, they themselves start to turn to social media. Presumably, they do so to seek inclusion. They may turn to their cellphone to distract themselves from the very painful feelings of being socially neglected. We know from brain-imaging research that being excluded registers as actual physical pain in the brain. People snubbed in favor of technology in turn become more likely to attach themselves to their phones in unhealthy ways, thereby increasing their own feelings of stress and depression.

“It is ironic that cell phones, originally designed as a communication tool, may actually hinder rather than foster interpersonal connectedness,” write David and Roberts in their study “Phubbed and Alone.” Their results suggest the creation of a vicious circle: A phubbed individual turns to social media and their compulsive behavior presumably leads them to phub others — perpetuating and normalizing the practice and problem of “phubbing.”

Why do people get into the phubbing habit in the first place? Not surprisingly, fear of missing out and lack of self-control predict phubbing. However, the most important predictor is addiction — to social media, to the phone and to the Internet. Internet addiction has similar brain correlates to physiological forms like addiction to heroin and other recreational drugs. The impact of this addiction is particularly worrisome for children whose brain and social skills are still under development.

Consider this: The urge to check social media is stronger than the urge for sex, according to research by University of Chicago’s Wilhelm Hoffman.

In some ways, these findings come as no surprise. We are profoundly social people for whom connection and a sense of belonging are crucial for health and happiness. (In fact, the lack thereof is worse for you than smoking, high blood pressure, and obesity.) So, we err sometimes. We look for connection on social media at the cost of face-to-face opportunities for true intimacy.

Awareness is the only solution. Know that what drives you and others is to connect and to belong. While you may not be able to control the behavior of others, you yourself have opportunities to model something different.

Research by Barbara Fredrickson, beautifully described in her book Love 2.0, suggests that intimacy happens in micro-moments: talking over breakfast, the exchange with the UPS guy, the smile of a child. The key is to be present and mindful. A revealing study showed that we are happiest when we are present, no matter what we are doing. Can we be present with the person in front of us right now, no matter who it is?

The most essential and intimate form of connection is eye contact. Posture and the most minute facial expressions (the tightening of our lips, the crow’s feet of smiling eyes, upturned eyebrows in sympathy or apology) communicate more than our words.

Most importantly, they are at the root of empathy — the ability to sense what another person is feeling—which is so critical to authentic human connection. True connection thrives on presence, openness, observation, compassion, and, as Brené Brown has so beautifully shared in her TED talk and her bestselling book “Daring Greatly,” vulnerability. It takes courage to connect with another person authentically, yet it is also the key to fulfillment.

What if someone in your presence snubs you for their phone? Patience and compassion are key here. Understand that the person is probably not doing it with malicious intent, but rather is following an impulse (sometimes irresistible) to connect. Just like you or I, their goal is not to exclude. To the contrary, they are looking for a feeling of inclusion. After all, a telling sociological study shows that loneliness is rising at an alarming rate in our society.

A recent study found that loneliness can be deadlier than obesity and should be considered a major public health hazard. (Video: Amber Ferguson/The Washington Post)

What’s more, age and gender play a role in people’s reactions to this behavior. According to studies, older participants and women advocate for more restricted phone use in most social situations. Men differ from women in that they viewed phone calls as more appropriate in virtually all environments including intimate settings. Similarly, in classrooms, male students find phubbing far less disturbing than their female counterparts.

Perhaps even worse than disconnecting from others, however, Internet addiction and phubbing disconnect us from ourselves. Plunged into a virtual world, we hunch over a screen, strain our eyes unnecessarily, and tune out completely from our own needs — for sleep, exercise, even food.

So, the next time you’re with another human and you feel tempted to pull out your phone — stop. Put it away. Look them in the eyes, and listen to what they have to say.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the name of the the University of Chicago. This version has been corrected.

Emma Seppala, PhD, is Science Director of Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education and Co-Director of the Yale College Well-being Program at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. She is author of The Happiness Track  (HarperOne, 2016).

This story originally appeared in Greater Good Magazine: Science-based insights for a meaningful life published by the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California Berkeley  It is used here with their permission.