How to stop ‘phubbing’ to save your relationships

Do you find yourself prioritising your phone over your partner, friends or family? Our experts reveal how you can stop.

We all know the temptation: your phone buzzes during a catch-up with friends or while your partner or child is telling you about their day.

You pick up your phone to quickly check and all of a sudden, you’re phubbing – or phone snubbing – the person right in front of you.

It might not seem like a big deal, but research shows phubbing may be hurting your relationships.

Why do we phub?

Psychologist Jocelyn Brewer says often there is not a malicious intention to snub someone.

“But the ubiquity of our devices and the pull of the activity that happens within social media and online platforms can be stronger than our connection or presence with the humans in front of us,” Jocelyn says.

“We have multiple sources competing for our attention and as we try to flick between them we can be seen to be ignoring others.”

FOMO, or fear of missing out

Charles Sturt University Associate Professor Yeslam Al-Saggaf says the reasons for phubbing can be complex.

“But the biggest one in my research is that fear of missing out,” Assoc Prof Al-Saggaf says.

“If you’re feeling bored with the conversation, FOMO becomes the excuse to look at your phone.”

How does phubbing affect relationships?

In his studies on phubbing, Assoc Prof Al-Saggaf has found we mostly phub the people closest to us.

“I think it’s because maybe you have a bank, or a balance of trust in a relationship, they can forgive you if you have that kind of momentary escape,” Assoc Prof Al-Saggaf says.

“Whereas a stranger might seem very offended and count your behaviour as very rude or uncivil.”

‘Feeling unloved’

While some people – particularly younger phone users – barely notice phubbing and find it normal, others can find it extremely irritating, Assoc Prof Al-Saggaf says.

He says regular phubbing can lead to a heightened feeling of jealousy among romantic partners, and lowered levels of relationship satisfaction.

As for your kids, Assoc Prof Al-Saggaf says phubbing has been compared to bullying.

“Because children are vulnerable, phubbing can make them feel neglected and feel unloved,” Assoc Prof Al-Saggaf says.

How to minimise phubbing

There are plenty of ways to reduce your phubbing habit, Jocelyn says.

  • Before scrolling, ask yourself whether you’re being mindful
  • Limit your access to certain apps
  • Try a digital sunset – switching your phone off at a specific time each night
  • Keep your phone out of sight
  • Leave your phone behind

And if you really need to check your phone?

A little etiquette can make all the difference, Jocelyn says.

“If you’re meeting someone for coffee you might want to signal you are expecting a call or email and will need to check your phone at a certain time,” Jocelyn says.

Or, if you want to use your phone while with someone, use it to enrich the conversation – for example by showing your photos or a funny video – rather than as a detraction.

Written by Larissa Ham.