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“Phubbing” Strains Relationships, May Lead to Depression

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Push notifications might be diminishing your happiness and harming your relationships.

This smartphone setting results in a ping or another form of notification whenever you receive an email message, weather update and so on.

To be more precise, a Baylor University study on cell phones found that its frequent usage was negatively affecting relationships.

“Phubbing,” a term coined in 2012 to describe snubbing someone via a digital device, is widespread, and, according to the study, can have detrimental effects on all social interactions, particularly romantic relationships.

Common examples of “phubbing” include:

  • Placing a cell phone where it can be seen.
  • Keeping a cell phone in one’s hand.
  • Glancing at a cell phone while talking to others.
  • Checking a cell phone for messages, emails and so on during a lull in conversation.

“What we discovered was that when someone perceived that their partner phubbed them, this created conflict and led to lower levels of reported relationship satisfaction,” explained James A. Roberts, a professor of marketing and study co-author. “These lower levels of relationship satisfaction, in turn, led to lower levels of life satisfaction and, ultimately, higher levels of depression.”

Meredith David, assistant professor of marketing and study co-author, further explained, “In everyday interactions with significant others, people often assume that momentary distractions by their cell phones are not a big deal.”

“However, our findings suggest that the more often a couple’s time spent together is interrupted by one individual attending to his/her cell phone, the less likely it is that the other individual is satisfied in the overall relationship,” she added.

This report joins a number of other studies about technology’s harmful impact on our daily lives, particularly on relationships. Yet, in noting these drawbacks we must not ignore the benefits.

Technology enables us to become more interconnected than at any other time in history.

We receive 24/7 global news coverage not only through major news networks but also via on-the-ground reporting from everyday people who Tweet updates in real-time and shoot video footage of breaking news.

When the Ebola crisis struck parts of Africa, Faliku Dukuly, a Liberian Baptist, shot rough footage focused on the virus’s impact. He sent these to EthicsDaily.com media producer Cliff Vaughn, who edited them for publication.

Technology also allows us to easily and inexpensively interact with folks around the world.

While working on a forthcoming EthicsDaily.com documentary on how missionaries intervened during the 1966 genocide in Nigeria, Vaughn was able to speak via Skype with a former British officer about the atrocities that took place.

He tweeted: “Hour-long ‘phone’ conversation today with former British officer in Nigeria. Cost from Tennessee to UK: about a buck-fifty. Thanks @Skype.”

These significant developments should be celebrated and embraced. Technology is not the problem; how we use it can be.

And our usage is having significant negative impacts on our friendships and family interactions that cannot be ignored.

In early February 2013, I wrote about the growing trend of “alone together” – being in the same room with others but being engaged with an electronic device.

“It is often unrecognized that we lose connection with those whom we share physical space in order to foster connection with those whom we share digital space. … While technology allows me to connect with people across the world, it can cause me to disconnect from people across the room,” I wrote.

There are close parallels between this trend and “phubbing.” I have engaged in both practices.

A “ding” on my phone causes me to turn my attention from the people I am with to my phone. Even if I don’t check the alert, it distracts me and causes a temporary disengagement.

Checking my phone when I’m running errands, waiting in a line or any other time there is a perceived “lull” has become an unconscious habit that bleeds over into interactions with friends and family.

It is easy to rationalize. “It might be an important work-related message,” “I’ve been waiting to hear back from (insert name),” and so on it goes.

Yet every time I look at my phone, I’m not able to engage with anyone else. My wife can attest to my inability to have a coherent conversation when I’m checking email.

Even when I’m alone running errands, I’m often “phubbing” – precluding any possible human interaction in favor of staring at my phone.

I could justify my behavior by noting that when I’m not looking at my phone almost everyone else I see is looking at theirs, but that only confirms what reports from the U.S. and U.K. have indicated: We’re addicted to our phones.

Rather than let myself “off the hook,” which only perpetuates the problem and deepens the habit, it would be more constructive to engage in a countercultural protest.

Not a flashy, self-promoting initiative, but intentional choices, outside of work hours, not to check my phone at every “ping,” or anytime there was a conversational lull, or while waiting in a line.

Instead, I could choose to be present to those I’m with, and when alone, to be open to, and capable of, a conversation with someone else.

It isn’t a profound, noble, noteworthy or complex action. But given the cultural addiction to our phones, it will likely be a challenge to stop my unconscious “phubbing.”

If the Baylor study is true, it is worth the effort to overcome this ubiquitous, harmful habit for the sake of healthier relationships and a happier life.

Zach Dawes is the managing editor for EthicsDaily.com. You can follow him on Twitter @ZachDawes_Jr.