Is ‘phubbing’ killing your career and relationships?

phone snubbing phubbing

It doesn’t take a scientific study to recognize that “phubbing,” or snubbing someone in a social setting by looking at your phone instead of paying attention to that person, is becoming more and more prevalent. The evidence is all around us.

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At restaurants, during concerts, even in meetings. We see people more involved in what is happening on their screen than with the people in front of them. Beyond causing us to miss out on what is happening in real time (and annoying those around us), research shows that phubbing may have detrimental impacts on our relationships, mental health, and productivity.

An addictive behavior

David Greenfield, psychologist and author of “Virtual Addiction: Help for Netheads, Cyber Freaks, and Those Who Love Them,” explains that technology is addictive because it functions on a “variable ratio reinforcement schedule.” Essentially, the unpredictability and novelty of the result of each “phone-check” keep us wondering what we will find on the next one, which keeps us looking down at our smartphones to find out.

Activities and behaviors that produce positive effects are more likely to be repeated. Positive reinforcement occurs when an action increases the likelihood of the preceding positive result. Computer technologies are “psychoactive,” meaning they have the ability to alter our mood and trigger positive feelings. In the case of smartphones, the information gathered via texts, emails, et cetera, is the source of that mood-altering power. “It’s like slot machines,” Greenfield says. “We’re seeking that pleasurable hit.”

As such, it is glaringly obvious why we become addicted to checking our smartphones—it is easier than ever to access that “pleasurable hit,” whether it be an Instagram like, a flirtatious text, or an affirmative email. So easy it seems, that TIME reports the average smartphone user checks his or her phone 46 times per day, and other studies show nearly double that number. The numbers are staggering, leading some mental health experts to go so far as to label phubbing as an epidemic.

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A dysfunctional obsession


“The smartphone, more than any other gadget, steals from us the opportunity to maintain our attention, to engage in contemplation and reflection, or even to be alone with our thoughts”

Staying plugged in may feel good on the surface, but the ongoing state is causing a disturbance to our mental health and dysfunction in our social and professional lives.

“We are not designed to be in a constant state of nervous system arousal and with all our portable devices all operating on a variable ratio reinforcement pattern,” says Kimberly Young, author of “Internet Addiction: A Handbook and Guide to Evaluation and Treatment.” She explains, “We feel as if we cannot turn them off and we begin to feel that we cannot live without them.”

Further, the portable, easy-to-use nature of smartphones (not to mention the myriad of apps) ensures that they are on-hand and often in-hand from the moment we wake up to the morning alarm until we set it again at night. The continuous stream of information to and from our phone means consistent disruption throughout the day, distracting us from the tasks and conversations we should be allocating full attention to.

Nicholas Carr, author of “The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brain,” explains, “By design, it’s an environment of almost constant interruptions and distractions. The smartphone, more than any other gadget, steals from us the opportunity to maintain our attention, to engage in contemplation and reflection, or even to be alone with our thoughts.”

This presents a clear obstacle at work. When we are not able to concentrate on one task at a time, we stifle our creativity, make more mistakes, slow and lessen our output, and damage our overall workplace satisfaction. Multi-tasking is not your friend. If you’ve ever looked a the overwhelming number of emails in your inbox or the badge app icons on your phone, then you know this to be true. Seeing a new email or app notification might feel good for a moment—enough so to keep you compulsively checking your email and phone—but the constant and mounting distractions are pulling us in too many directions.

Beyond decreasing our focus and efficiency throughout the workday, phubbing your partner and friends may damage your relationships, as well as contribute to depression and decrease rates of overall life satisfaction.

In a study done last year, 46.3 percent of surveyed adults said their partners are guilty of phubbing, with 22.6 percent citing contention in the relationship as a result.

James A. Roberts, a professor at Baylor University and one of the study’s authors, explained, “What we found, not surprisingly, when people perceive their partners to be phubbers—they spend more time paying attention to their (phones)—that created conflict in the relationship,”

Their findings further suggest that even small acts of phubbing can lead to big problems if the interruptions become frequent enough.

Some feel so passionately about the negative effects of phone snubbing that one activist site has garnered half a million votes to stop phubbing.

A structured solution

It will take a certain level of self-awareness and practice to cut back on screen time and shake your reputation as a phubber, but the increase your overall life and work satisfaction will be far worth it. Be patient with yourself and with your fellow phubbers as you work to break bad habits and create new ones.

Here are some ways to get started on the path of a phub-free life:

1) Keep your phone out of your line of sight. Simply seeing your phone is often enough to trigger FOMO and trigger your addictive phone-checking. Remember, out of sight, out of mind.

2) Turn your phone on airplane mode. Do this during personal and professional gatherings like meals and meetings. This is similar to point one, but also keeps you honest, as that innocent glance to check the time won’t snowball into a ten-minute social media sessions. And don’t worry—all of your text, email, social, and other messages will be waiting as soon as you turn airplane mode off.

3) Turn cell phone notifications off. You don’t need to know every time you receive a new email nor do you need know the exact second a friend likes your Facebook photo—so turn off your cell phone notifications. Afraid of missing something important (or entertaining)? Schedule designated blocks of time for checking email and do the same for reading the news, checking sports scores, and skimming through social networks.

4) Delete unnecessary apps. We’re looking at you, Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook, and Tinder. Beyond that, do you really need and benefit from your news, sports, and gaming apps? Part of the beauty of the ever-expanding app marketplace is the ability to find just about anything we need, but the fact of the matter is that we don’t need very much. Delete apps you don’t use and delete apps that you don’t want to use but are in the habit of checking. If nothing else, move your most distracting apps into a folder, name it “Distractions,” and move it off your home screen.

5) Designate phone-free activities. Take a walk. Read a book. Eat a meal. Do anything that stimulates you and commit to doing it without your phone. You don’t have to Instagram everything and you don’t have to look at other people’s food porn while you have dinner.

6) Assign accountability partners. Ask friends, family, and coworkers to call you out when they notice you peeking at your screen during a conversation or event and be sure to reciprocate the behavior. If you’re worried about causing an awkward scene in front of others or worried that calling each other out may lead to tension, come up with a code word that can serve as a reminder and as a pseudo inside joke.

7) Keep track of your progress. As with any resolution, it’s important to track your progress. You will slip up at times and that’s okay; just remember to keep yourself accountable and to celebrate successes, both big and small.

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