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You Probably Don’t Know What ‘Phubbing' Is, But You Do It Constantly

A 2016 study explains why you can't stop looking at your phone, even when you are ostensibly having fun with your friends.
Photo by Simone Becchetti via Stocksy

Good news: There's now one simple term to describe the act of ignoring everyone you know and love in favor of your iPhone, which you love way more. The bad news is that the word is "phubbing"—a silly-sounding portmanteau of the words "phone" and snubbing."

In a 2016 report, the researchers at the University of Kent analyze how the anti-social phone behavior became widely accepted as the norm. "[The term phubbing] isn't particularly well known at all. It originated in Australia, where it first appeared in the Macquarie Dictionary in 2008," the study's lead researcher, Karen Douglas explains. "Very few people in our study knew what the term was, but when you describe it to people, everybody knows what it means and is very familiar with the behavior."


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Indeed, phubbing—let's just roll with it—has gone from being a millennial trait that people complain about in essays to a fact of life. Nearly every episode of Keeping Up with the Kardashians features at least one person phubbing someone else. (Kim blithely taking selfies while Scott Disick tries to have a heartfelt discussion about feeling left out of the family in season 12 is one notable example.)

So Douglas and her Ph.D student Varoth Chotpitayasunondh conducted a survey of 251 people, aged 18 to 66, to find out why being an asshole was suddenly fine. All the participants reported that they phubbed to some degree and, not surprisingly, the researchers found that internet addiction and a loss of self-control contributed to the phenomenon. The fear of missing out—or FoMO—also played a role. "People are constantly looking for information, and they can't put their phone down," Douglas says. "These factors predict the extent to which you are addicted to your smartphone, but also the extent to which you engage in phubbing."

Screenshot via E!

Her research also indicates that there's a sort of phubbing karma at work: When you phub someone, they're likely to phub you back. "This has more or less become an accepted way to communicate. People phub more when they see it being done to others and when it happens to themselves," Douglas says. "This reciprocity makes the behavior seem normal."

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This research, she says, is the first of its kind. (It might also be the first to scientifically inquire into FoMO.) Douglas is currently working on expanding the literature on phubbing to include research on not just why people do it, but its impact on communication, which doesn't seem to be positive. "We're putting people in situations where they're being phubbed by an avatar and asking them how that makes them feel, how they feel about the person they're communicating with, and the quality of the communication," she says. "It looks like phubbing does have an impact on how people feel: It makes them feel pretty bad." But still, she adds, phubbers are going to phub.