‘Phubbing’ can threaten our basic human needs.

Posted on under Today's research

I find it incredibly annoying when I’m giving a workshop and someone pulls out their smartphone and proceeds to catch up with whatever is going on elsewhere. They are temporarily satisfying a compelling addiction. From conversations I have had with fellow presenters around the world I know every one of them feels the same way. The attendee is unconsciously making a dismissive relationship statement.

Now new research has shown that ignoring someone you’re with in a social (or work) setting to concentrate on your mobile phone—called ‘phubbing’—can have a negative effect on relationships (and even mental health) by threatening our basic human need to belong.

What the researchers say: The team studied the effect on individuals of being phubbed in a one-to-one social situation. They found that increased phubbing significantly and negatively affected the way the person being phubbed felt about their interaction with the other person.

Researchers considered phubbing a specific form of social exclusion that threatens people’s fundamental human needs: belonging, self-esteem, meaningful existence and control. NO wonder I get angry! Their study involved 153 participants who were asked to view an animation of two people having a conversation and imagine themselves as one of them. Each participant was assigned to one of three different situations: no phubbing, partial phubbing or extensive phubbing.

The results showed that, as the level of phubbing increased, people experienced greater threats to their fundamental needs. They also perceived the communication quality to be poorer, and the relationship to be less satisfying. The results also showed that phubbing affected the need to belong, which explained the overall negative effects on social interaction.

Unlike other, more well-studied forms of social exclusion, phubbing can take place anywhere and at any time as someone reaches for their phone and ignores their conversation partner, the researchers point out.

So, what? Phubbing is just one more way in which modern technology is reducing the quality of our conversations. I have spoken to many phubbers and they almost all say that they didn’t realize that they were doing anything antisocial. More worryingly many denied that they were doing it at all—I get the same level of denial from problem drinkers, problem gamblers and problem shoppers. Smartphone addiction (any addiction is a dysfunctional strategy aimed at getting an adequate supply of the reward neurochemical dopamine to key areas of the brain) is just another way in which Facebook and the rest make money—just as the casinos make profits from problem gamblers. In our modern society there are decreasing ways of getting the dopamine hit that we need for well-functioning brains. Normally our most reliable source comes from the pleasure we get from having face-to-face interactions with supportive friends and family and colleagues—just what we’re being increasingly denied by smartphone technology.

What now? Perhaps at last people are beginning to see a bit of the light and there have been many who have cancelled a few of their social media accounts. I fear, however, that the ultimate answer will have to be a change of parenting styles and a severe limitation in children’s screen time. After all, would you encourage your 3 or 4-year-old to become an addict to gambling or alcohol? Why should giving them a kid’s iPad be any different?

Screen time should also be limited in the workplace—too many businesses are adopting social media techniques to hook their employees, thinking that this will improve their productivity. It may, but at what societal cost?