Snubbing friends to look at a phone linked to mental health issues

ATHENS, Ga. — With smartphones and social media being a constant presence in the lives of so many people, it’s safe to say most people have at some point snubbed a friend to look at their phone instead. Researchers from the University of Georgia say people generally view the act of “phubbing” as rude, yet plenty of phone users still do it. So what’s driving people to ignore the friends they’re face-to-face with in favor of staring at a digital screen? A new study finds mental health and certain personality traits play a big role in social rudeness.

The team notes that phubbing can seriously damage relationships with friends and even loved ones. During their study of what drives people to do this, they discovered that there is a strong connection between depression and anxiety and people phubbing. Overall, depressed individuals were more likely to phub friends often. Socially anxious people, who may prefer online interactions to face-to-face contact, also appear to phub more often.

In addition to mental health conditions, the team says personality traits like neuroticism can influence phone users to neglect their friends during in-person gatherings.

“And of course, some people who have high social anxiety or depression are more likely to be addicted to their smartphone,” says lead author Juhyung Sun, who completed her master’s degree in communication studies at UGA, in a university release.

Researchers say this behavior is actually increasing in society. Moreover, people appear to be accepting that someone they know will ignore them in favor of a phone.

“I observed that so many people use their phones while they are sitting with their friends at the cafe, any dining time, regardless of the relationship type,” adds Sun, now a doctoral candidate at the University of Oklahoma.

Smartphones have so many features to draw people in

To find out what makes people phub their friends, the team first looked at negative tech conditions, like smartphone addictive. Part of that problem, study authors say, is the habit people develop to constantly check notifications as they pop up on their screens.

“People are really sensitive to their notifications. With each buzz or sound, we consciously or unconsciously look at our phones,” Sun explains.

Among these never-ending alerts include apps for everything from weather updates, to breaking news, to social media messages, to shopping notifications.

Let’s agree to disagree on phubbing

Interestingly, the team notes there is one particular personality trait that can determine if someone will phub or not phub their friends. Sun finds that more agreeable individuals are less likely to ignore their friends in social settings. Higher levels of agreeableness had a link to people being more cooperative, polite, and friendly to friends during face-to-face meetings.

“They have a high tendency to maintain social harmony while avoiding arguments that can ruin their relationships,” Sun reports. “In face-to-face conversations, people with high levels of agreeableness consider phubbing behavior rude and impolite to their conversational partners.”

These people are also more likely to completely turn off their phones while out with friends; showing their pals a sign of respect.

“That, too, is a signal – I am listening to what you are saying, this meeting is important and I am focusing on you,” Sun continues.

Although agreeableness tends to keep people engaged in their face-to-face conversations, bigger groups lead to phubbing creeping back in. An exploratory study by the team finds someone is more likely to phub a friend in groups of three or more.

“It’s ironic that while so many people believe that phubbing behavior is rude, they still do it,” the lead author says. “A majority of people phub others, and in a group, it may seem OK, because it’s just me, the speaker doesn’t notice I’m using the phone. The number of a people in a group can be one reason.”

Post-pandemic phubbing

Jennifer Samp, a communication studies professor at the UGA Franklin College of Arts and Sciences, believes the rude act of phubbing will become even more prevalent in the coming months and years. Samp says the shift to remote learning and remote work has made society particularly reliant on online communication during COVID-19.

“People relied heavily on phones and other technologies to stay connected during the pandemic,” Samp concludes. “For many, staying connected in a more distanced manner via texts and video messaging was more comfortable than face-to-face interaction. Will people – particularly anxious ones – still phub when physically reunited? Time will tell.”

The study appears in the Behaviour & Information Technology.

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