Phone-Snubbing Friends Can Be a Sign of Mental Illness

General Health


Aug. 25, 2021 — Phone snubbing: You may have done it, or someone you know is guilty of it. It happens when one person ignores another to pay attention to their phone. Phubbing is rude, but according to a new study, there may be another reason it’s happening.

“Some people who have high social anxiety or depression are more likely to be addicted to their smartphone,” says the study’s lead author, Juhyung Sun, from the University of Oklahoma in Norman.

But even when addiction is the main problem, the habit of constantly reading every notification that pops up onscreen can also encourage the tendency to phub.

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

And with so many focused on their smartphones, people are quickly adapting to the ways technology can interrupt social interactions, which can mask a deeper problem with serious effects on relationships.

Working with professor Jennifer Samp, PhD, from the University of Georgia in Athens, they surveyed 472 participants who shared information about their smartphone habits, social interactions, and mental health.

Sun says she became interested in studying phone snubbing when she noticed the impolite tendency for people to use their phones with friends in coffee shops and restaurants. She saw it was happening no matter what the relationship seemed to be between the people.

Participants answered questions on a 5-point scale ranging from 1 for strongly disagree to 5 for strongly agree as they responded to statements such as, “I would rather pay attention to my phone,” or “My friend tells me that I interact with my phone too much.”

“I Would Rather Pay Attention to My Phone”

The study results pointed to a link between ignoring friends to focus on an electronic screen and depression and social anxiety. The more seriously depressed a person is, the more likely they are to avoid interactions, the researchers reported, while those who have social anxiety tend to find communicating on their phone more comfortable than face-to-face connections.

The investigators also point to a link between personality traits such as neuroticism and a tendency to focus on negative emotions to phone snubbing. By contrast, they showed that agreeable people who prefer to avoid arguments with others tended to focus less on their phone in the company of friends.

The researchers also found that phone use is more likely in the presence of three or more people because individuals seem to think it is OK to break from a conversation being led by others.

This dynamic could have implications for phone overuse at work, says Samp.

“People relied heavily on phones and other technologies to stay connected during the pandemic,” she explains. “For many, staying connected in a more distanced manner via texts and video messaging was more comfortable than face-to-face interaction.”

Only time will tell if people, especially socially anxious ones, will use their phone to ignore others when physically reunited, Samp says.

The problem is that while illnesses such as depression can have a negative effect on friendship satisfaction, the researchers found excessive phone use worsened the problem. This was also the case for social anxiety where added phubbing behavior seemed to worsen levels of friendship satisfaction. And people reporting neuroticism also expressed concern about weaker relationships.

While phubbing can be interpreted as a lack of interest and focus, the alternate act of disabling or turning over a phone is a sign of respect, the researchers said.

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

WebMD Health News


Behaviour & Information Technology: ‘Phubbing is Happening to you’: examining predictors and effects of phubbing behaviour in friendships

Juhyung Sun, lead study author, University of Oklahoma, Norman.

Jennifer Samp, PhD, professor, University of Georgia, Athens.

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