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What's phubbing, and the way does it hurt us?

January 6, 2024
Homeschooling Blogs

No need to point fingers, because we’ve all done it: Ignoring people around us while we focus on a technological device. When we ignore or snub folks with our smartphones, it’s called “phubbing,” and since many of us carry our smartphones everywhere, phubbing has become very common. But — no surprise! — phubbing can erode trust, undermine our relationships, and even interfere with learning. And kids may have the most to lose.

Let’s start with some acknowledgements. There’s nothing intrinsically harmful about using technology to communicate, educate, or entertain ourselves. On the contrary, there are many ways in computers and smart phones can enrich our lives. They are valuable tools, and tools that can actually help us stay connected with people who are far away.

But there is a time and place. If we are in the middle of a social interaction, and we suddenly turn our attention away from the people present in order to focus on a technological device, this is socially disruptive.

It might be something we didn’t choose. Maybe it’s an urgent message from the boss we have to answer. Or maybe we’ve developed a habit, an ingrained, knee-jerk response. Hear a ping, check the phone.

But either way, the act of turning away from our social partners — at a time when we are supposed to be sharing or interacting — causes a disconnect. The live, in-person, real-time communication we’ve been having goes on hold. We become distracted, less attuned to what is going on with our social partners, which can lead to missed cues and mistakes. And if our social partners perceive us to be ignoring them, we’ve also caused bad feelings — feelings of frustration, irritation, rejection, invisibility, or offense.

So using smartphones and other technology doesn’t make us bad, antisocial, or pathological. But using them at the wrong time — in contexts where we need to be socially engaged with the people in our immediate presence — can cause harm.

That’s what we need to watch out for: the tendency for technological devices to derail the normal, live interactions that humans need in order to thrive.

What is phubbing? Some definitions…

Phubbing, or “phone snubbing”, has been defined by researchers as “the act of ignoring someone present in favor of a mobile phone” (Lv et al 2022), or “using a smartphone in a social setting of two or more people, and interacting with the smartphone rather than the person or people present” (Chotpitayasunondh and Douglas 2016).

Phubbing versus “technoference”

Sometimes, an alternative term, “technoference” is used to mean the same thing as “phubbing”. But the term has been defined a bit differently, as “as everyday interruptions in interpersonal interactions or time spent together that occur due to digital and mobile technology devices” (McDaniel and Radesky 2018).

In other words, “technoference” covers interruptions caused by a variety of devices, not just phones. In addition, it’s worth noting that “technoference” doesn’t necessary come with the connotation of that somebody is feeling ignored. You and your friend might hold an emotionally satisfactory conversation while multitasking on the phone. The phone stuff interferes with communication, but neither of you feel snubbed or left out (McDaniel and Coyne 2016a).

Researchers have defined parental technoference as “regular interruptions to real-time face-to-face communications, interactions, or time spent together between family members because of parental use of technology” (MacKay et al 2022).

Who engages in phubbing?

Studies suggest that phubbing is strongly linked with problematic internet use or internet addiction. Phubbing is also substantially more common among folks struggling with self-control issues, as well as those who experience high levels of FOMO (the fear of missing out), and/or who feel bored. Other factors that contribute to phubbing include feeling depressed, anxious, or lacking in well-being (Arenz and Schnauber-Stockmann 2023).

But the truth is that phubbing is now practiced by almost anybody with a smartphone – not just those of us with mental health problems.

Indeed, as far back as 2016, two researchers working in the United Kingdom — Varoth Chotpitayasunondh and Karen Douglas – warned that phubbing has been accepted as normal behavior. And in a 2015 Pew Research Study survey of more than 3,000 adults in the United States, more than 65% of people under the age of 50 said they had sent messages on their phones while attending a social gathering. Among people under 30, the rates were even higher (Rainie and Zickuhr 2015).

Phubbing and technoference is also very common among parents

mother on the phone, ignoring todder in the background, while toddler looks on sadly

Parents are people, too, of course, so we should expect them to feel the same motivations and pressures that lead the general population to “phub”! Moreover, the parents of young children may find the lure of the phone to be strong, especially if their caregiving duties leave them feeling socially isolated, or cut-off from other adults (McDaniel 2019).

As I’ve noted in my article about hunter-gatherer parenting, this lack of adult contact and social support was not a normal feature of parenting for most of human history. On the contrary, new parents worked and socialized with friends and neighbors — in person — throughout the day. Yet in places like the United States, some parents may spend long hours alone without this type of contact.

Under these circumstances, a phone might feel like a life-line. Then it can become pretty easy for phone use to start disrupting one-on-one communication within the family — especially if you suffer from one of the many risk factors mentioned above

In a 2020 Pew survey of more than 3600 parents, 68% of parents said “they at least sometimes feel distracted by their smartphone while they are spending time with their children, including 17% who say they feel this way often” (Auxier 2020). And in a smaller study of more than 200 mothers living in the United States, 96% of them said that at least one technological device (usually a mobile phone) has caused interference with family interactions between co-parents and children (McDaniel and Coyne 2016b).

So it’s clear that phubbing and technoference is changing the way we interact with each other, and that’s worrying, because there is ample evidence that this interference is causing harm.

What are the effects of phubbing?

Phubbing triggers negative feelings, and it can harm relationships – both personal and professional

young man phubbing young woman, while she looks at him, feeling rejected

We know from everyday experience that folks feel excluded, ostracized, or disrespected by phubbing. And studies indicate that this harms relationships. Experiments suggest that people feel less trust for someone who has “phubbed” them (Knausenberger et al 2022), and less empathy when attempting to interact in the presence of a mobile phone (Misra et al 2016).

Individuals who get phubbed are at higher risk for feeling lonely (Ergün et al 2020). When our romantic partners phub us, we perceive our relationship to be lower in quality and less satisfying (Yam 2023).

When bosses phub their staff, they reduce employee trust and job satisfaction – which then reduces employee engagement and work performance (Roberts and David 2020; 2017).

But perhaps the most concerning effects of all are those associated with parental phubbing.

What happens when parents phub their children?

Links with emotional and behavioral problems in kids

Like adults, children notice when they are being phubbed, and they find it unpleasant. Moreover, when kids perceive that their parents are phubbing them frequently, they are at higher risk for emotional difficulties and behavior problems.

For example, when researchers reviewed more than 40 studies conducted on school-aged kids in China, they found that parental phubbing was linked with poor child adjustment. Children and teens reporting higher levels of parental phubbing were more likely to experience depression and anxiety. They were more likely to experience externalizing behavior problems, and less likely to meet minimal standards of socio-emotional competence (Zhang et al 2023).

It’s harder to find studies addressing parental phubbing on school-aged children in Western countries. But at least one study has examined the impact of “technoference” on adolescents in the United States, and the results were consistent with research in China. Higher levels of parental phubbing were linked with greater depression and anxiety (Stockdale et al 2018).

Phubbing is also linked with less sensitive caregiving by parents

In a review of studies on the effects of smartphones on parenting, researchers found “clear indications that parental sensitivity and responsiveness can be negatively impacted” during the caregiving of young children (Braune-Krickau et al 2021). And in some cases, investigators have simply observed this happening in real time.

For instance, in one study, researchers watched families in both the United States and Israel as they spent time public parks and restaurants. Parents in both countries were similarly zoned-out when they were on their phones – “to the point of sometimes being inattentive to their (young children’s) safety and emotional needs” (Elias et al 2020).

How can we be sure that parental technoference causes these problems?

Isn’t it possible that causation works the other way? Maybe it’s just that parents are more likely to bury themselves in their phones if they have kids with emotional difficulties or behavior problems.

There’s no doubt about it. As researchers like Brandon McDaniel and Jenny Radesky have demonstrated, children’s behavior problems can drive stressed-out parents to seek escape through their phones. But when McDaniel and Radesky tracked these parents over time, they confirmed that parental phubbing is also predictive of worsening child behavior (McDaniel and Radesky 2018). So it’s a two-way street.

In addition, researchers have controlled for children’s prior behavior by conducting experiments, like an experiment that sent families to visit a museum. Parents in that study were randomly assigned to either use their phones a lot…or as little as possible. Then researchers monitored parents’ perceptions and feelings.

Not only were the “high usage” parents report feeling less attentive to their kids. They also reported feeling less socially connected, and they judged their lives to have less purpose or meaning (Kushlev and Dunn 2019).

Other experiments shed light on the reactions of very young children to phubbing. What do these studies tell us?

Babies and toddlers: Troubling evidence that parental phubbing interferes with communication and learning

parents phubbing child at dinner table, ignoring child in favor of their phones

First, there is experimental evidence that phubbing disrupts emotional communication between parents and babies

For example, when mothers have been instructed to interrupt a play session with their babies – by interacting only with a mobile phone – infants immediately displayed worsened mood, and they were slow to recover when their mothers put the phones away (Stockdale et al 2020; Myruski et al 2018). In fact, babies react to this situation in much the same way that they react when their mothers are told to adopt a “still face” – ceasing to show any emotion or responsiveness to their children.

So this suggests that babies notice when their mothers disconnect with them, and they find it stressful. Indeed, in one study, maternal phubbing was linked with an increase in infant heart rate, consistent with the interpretation that the babies were experiencing a physiological stress response (Rozenblatt-Perkal et al 2022).

In addition, there is reason to think that technoference derails “brain-to-brain synchrony”

As I note in this Parenting Science article, caregivers and children can experience synchronized patterns of brain activity – a sign that they are communicating well. But an experiment on young children (24-42 months old) found that this “brain-to-brain” synchrony was disrupted when, during storybook reading, mothers paused to use their phones (Zivan et al 2022).

We also have evidence that parental phubbing can interfere with language learning

Have you ever been working on something – trying to take in new information – only to have your progress ruined by an interruption? The interruption might be brief, and of course you try to delve back into what you were doing. But you find that you’ve lost your train of thought, and you can’t get it back on track.

This might be what it’s like for young children when we allow technology to interrupt our conversations with them. To see what I mean, picture this experiment.

“Learning on hold”

You’re supposed to teach your 2-year-old a new word – a word that has been invented by researchers, just to make sure your child will have never heard of it before.

An experimenter hands you a mobile phone to keep available during your lesson. She says she’ll use this phone to keep in contact with you – to provide you with instructions, and to “chit chat.”

Then you begin: A 60-second teaching session.

What happens? Does your child end up learning something about the new word? Or does the lesson just “go in one ear, and out the other”?

This experiment was conducted by Jessa Reed and two world experts in language development and learning – Kathy Hirsh-Pasek and Roberta Goliknoff . And the results – based on data from 38 mother-toddler pairs – depended on that mobile phone.

Toddlers tended to learn the new word after a 1-minute instruction period. But this only happened if the lesson was uninterrupted.

When children’s lessons were interrupted by the mothers taking a phone call, the kids didn’t seem to learn anything. And this was true despite the fact that the mothers immediately resumed their lessons after getting off the phone.

You see, this was a well-designed experiment. Every mother-infant pair experienced two, different trials – each introducing a different word. And the researchers randomly selected just one of the two trials to be interrupted by a 30 second phone call.

In both conditions – interrupted and uninterrupted – the toddlers received a total 60 seconds of instruction. The only difference was that lessons during uninterrupted condition were continuous. Lessons during the interrupted condition were split into two parts – before and after the phubbing.

And while mothers varied in the way they handled the incoming call (with some mothers telling their kids something like, “Hold oh, sweetie, I need to answer this call”, and other mothers simply picking up the phone), it didn’t make a difference in learning outcomes.

Nor were the interrupted lessons inferior in the sense that mothers provided less coaching.   Mothers in both conditions repeated the new word frequently, with no significant differences.

Nor did it matter what the child did when his or her mother was on the phone. Some kids stayed nearby to wait. Others wandered off. Either way, kids exposed to the interrupted lesson performed the same when they were subsequently tested for evidence of learning. They didn’t seem to have absorbed anything (Reed et al 2017).

Is this the last word on the disruptive nature of phubbing for young children?

Definitely not. No single experiment should stand on its own. Studies need to be replicated, and there are many questions left to answer. For instance, does phubbing have different effects on children’s learning depending on their age? We should also keep in mind that these experiments address immediate effects only. They don’t tell us anything about the possible long-term effects of technoference or phubbing.

But meanwhile, the research provides us with much food for thought

We’ve got several important take-aways here. Being phubbed makes people feel bad, and it can harm relationships, including friendships, romantic partnerships, and work relationships. When kids are phubbed by parents, there are added risks. Children are more likely to experience emotional and behavioral problems. And young children may have more difficulty connecting with caregivers, and learning language from them.

None of this means that the occasional phone interruption is going to cause lasting damage to your relationships or your child. But if technoference is chronic – if you are frequently engaged in phubbing – that could spell trouble. And young children are just as much at risk as anyone else. In some ways, they might be at greater risk.

Is this something else that parents should feel blamed about — and guilty over?

Researchers like Brandon McDaniel — who coined the term “technoference” — has been explict about this. He doesn’t want parents to feel guilty. Parents already haven’t enough trouble with guilt and self-blame. Instead, he wants us to start becoming more conscious of the extent to which technoference has crept into our lives…and then take steps to scale it back.

What are good ways to prevent phubbing and technoference at home?

Dr. McDaniel has made recommendations himself, which you can hear in this interview on YouTube. The highlights?

  • Realize that having a phone with you means you are risk of phubbing.
  • Be conscious of the context before you pull out your phone.
  • Think about setting aside “tech free” times or zones. For instance, you might decide that you will never use your phone when you are in your child’s bedroom. Or you might set aside meal times as “no phone use” part of the day.
  • Do you underestimate how often technoference occurs in your family? Try installing an app on your phone that tracks your use, and then see if you have any patterns of using your phone at times when you need to be paying more attention to your kids.

More reading about electronic devices, children, and learning

Interested in learning more about the potential impact of electronic devices on well-being and child development? In my article, “The effects of television on speech development: Is it helpful or harmful?” I take you on a tour of the research about screen time. It isn’t a simple story. Screens can interfere with learning in some situations, yet be helpful in others.

In my article, “Tech at bedtime,” I review the what studies tell us about the disruptive effects of screen time on sleep.

And if you’re interested in the best, evidence-based strategies for helping young children learn language, see my article, “How to support language learning in babies.”

References: The effects of phubbing and technoference

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Image credits

image of father phubbing son while they sit at a table together by Kleber Cordeiro / shutterstock

image of mother using phone with toddler face in the background by yamasan / istock

image of young woman looking excluded by man on phone by Cast of Thousands / istock

image of family at mealtime, parents phubbing young child by Ollyy / shutterstock

Content last modified 1/5/2024

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