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Why People Use Smartphones in Social Situations

Photo of two people. One person looks at his cell phone, the other person looks away annoyed.
Reaching for your smartphone can affect your relationship with others. (Photo: Adobe Stock)

Using a smartphone and ignoring other people in a moment of social interaction is known as phubbing (a blend of phone and snubbing). This habit can endanger relationships and threaten psychological well-being. Researchers at the University of Basel have now examined the factors that contribute to this behavior.

15 February 2022

Photo of two people. One person looks at his cell phone, the other person looks away annoyed.
Reaching for your smartphone can affect your relationship with others. (Photo: Adobe Stock)

Phubbing is the phenomenon of ignoring someone in order to focus on your smartphone. It can regularly be observed in cafés, restaurants, and even at the home dinner table. It can have wide-ranging consequences: phubbing can interfere with social interactions and relationships, reduce productivity at work, and contribute to depression.

Although phubbing has long been documented in research, little was known until now about the factors that contribute to the behavior. In order to determine these, psychologists at the University of Basel surveyed 128 students. They have now published their findings in the journal Mobile Media & Communication. In their study, the researchers differentiate between shared use of the phone, such as to watch the screen together, and exclusionary use.

Acceptance leads to more phubbing

One determining factor that leads to phubbing is personal attitude: people who are not bothered by others looking at their phones are more inclined to use their phones in an exclusionary manner while spending time with others. People with a more positive attitude toward phubbing also experience this behavior more frequently from others. Those who use their phone first tend to engage in phubbing more frequently.

One factor that seems to be less relevant, on the other hand, is how highly the smartphone user rates their relationship to the other person: a lower evaluation of the social interaction does lead to an increase in overall phone use, but not to exclusionary phubbing in particular. “This was surprising, since we would have expected to see a connection between lower-rated interactions and more phubbing,” explains social psychologist Christiane Büttner.

A vicious cycle of emotions

As smartphones become more widespread, phubbing occurs more and more frequently. Previous studies have confirmed that most smartphone users engage in phubbing daily in a range of social contexts, for example at work or lunch. Romantic partners and friends are particularly prone to it. Phubbing can lead to reduced satisfaction with and valuation of social interactions such as conversations and shared experiences. Over time, the behavior can lead to distancing between the affected individuals.

As phubbing spreads, it can become more accepted and may be reciprocated. “It can quickly become a vicious cycle,” Büttner warns. Persistent phubbing can affect both relationships and individual well-being: relationship satisfaction and perceived relationship quality may decline, while feelings of jealousy, relationship problems and depression may increase.

Original publication

Christiane M. Büttner, Andrew T. Gloster, Rainer Greifeneder
Your phone ruins our lunch: Attitudes, norms, and valuing the interaction predict phone use and phubbing in dyadic social interactions
Mobile Media & Communication (2021), doi: 10.1177/20501579211059914

Further information

Christiane M. Büttner, University of Basel, Faculty of Psychology, tel. +41 61 207 03 37, email: c.buettner@unibas.ch

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