What is ‘phubbing’? The annoying phone habit we’re all guilty of

young girlfriend looking annoyed at her busy boyfriend texting on his smartphone during a dinner date
What is ‘phubbing’?Antonio Diaz

Sometimes there’s nothing better than looking at your phone: whiling away the hours on TikTok; catching up with the absurd meme of the moment; answering “urgent” emails from your boss at 11PM on a Saturday. Bliss!

But do you know who doesn’t like you looking at your phone? Your partner. Or your mum. Or your friends. They might like looking at their own phones, but watching you look at yours, not so much – especially if they’re trying to talk to you, you’re in the middle of watching a film, or, worst of all, if you and your partner are having sex (yep, it happens). There’s even a name for it: ‘phubbing’.

Given that, on average, we all spend seven hours a day on our phones, we’ve probably all been guilty of phubbing someone at some point in our lives (or, realistically, in the last week). But, while a little phubbing is to be expected – part and parcel of our technological utopia! – there is such a thing as too much phubbing, and it can have a detrimental effect on your relationships.

If this is all sounding a bit too familiar, don’t worry, we’re here to help. Well, us and sex and relationship coach Lucy Rowett, who’s shared her tips on how to know when your phubbing is becoming a problem, how it can impact your relationships, and what you can do about it.

young couple in the restaurant using mobile phone
Dejan Marjanovic

What is phubbing?

A portmanteau of ‘phone’ and ‘snubbing’, phubbing means exactly what it says on the tin: ignoring the person you’re with in favour of your phone. This isn’t always a bad thing. As our phones are so intrinsic to our daily lives, there’s going to be times when we need to prioritise them – whether that’s replying to a friend in need, keeping in touch with family members, or solving a work problem. And sometimes you’re going to have to do this when you’re hanging out with someone. Soz!

But if you find yourself reaching for your phone a lot when you’re with friends, family, or your partner, or mindlessly scrolling when you’re supposed to be listening, you might find yourself ruffling some feathers (and vice versa). “The issue with phubbing is that it’s become so normalised and so much part of our daily lives that it’s easy to forget it’s a thing,” says Rowett.

Grabbing our phones in a quiet moment – or any moment, for that matter – and switching off from the world has become a reflex for most of us, meaning it can be hard to even realise when we’re phubbing someone. But, trust us, your friends and partner notice… just like you notice when it’s happening to you.

How can phubbing affect your relationships?

“Phubbing can make the other person feel unseen and unheard, and like they don’t matter that much to you,” explains Rowett. “It can make them feel completely ignored and like you don’t actually want to spend time with them.”

How upset someone gets about being phubbed can depend on how close they are to you, how much time you spend together, and how often you’re doing it to them. Housemates, for example, might not be that bothered about you phubbing during Love Island, but the friend you only see once a month will likely be annoyed if you spend the whole time texting someone else (fair, TBH).

But generally, whoever you spend most of your time with is likely to bear the brunt of your phubbing habit, which, if you have one, is often your romantic partner. In this instance – dubbed ‘partner phubbing’ by several recent studies – perpetual phubbing can even have a deeper meaning. “Phubbing can be a way to distract yourself from uncomfortable feelings,” says Rowett, “including what you feel when you’re with your partner, which you really need to address because it could be the symptom of unresolved conflict.”

She continues: “What can start as scrolling or texting because you feel stressed or need to decompress can easily turn into a way of avoiding spending time with your partner because you’re burying how you feel and the conversations you need to be having.”

How much phubbing is too much phubbing?

There’s no definitive answer to this, but, as Rowett says, “phubbing becomes an issue when you start to feel like it’s an issue”. If you’re the one being phubbed, you might feel a sinking feeling or a flick of annoyance when the person you’re with is looking at their phone yet again when you’re trying to have a conversation with them.

If it’s your partner doing the phubbing, you might start feeling more and more resentful towards them and their phone. “Don’t ignore this or tell yourself you’re being ‘too sensitive’,” advises Rowett. “It’s a sign that there’s a need not being met.”

If you’re the one guilty of phubbing, Rowett says you might realise that your habit is becoming a problem “if you’re phubbing more than you’re actually being present with your partner, you find yourself repeatedly wanting to spend time on your phone rather than with them, or you’re phubbing while catching up, on a date, or even in bed together”.

young couple lying in bed and using a smartphone at home
Maria Korneeva

How can you broach the topic with someone?

Nobody likes to feel like they’re being told off, or told what to do. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t bring up someone’s phubbing habit, especially as they might not realise how bad it’s gotten or how much it upsets you. Just try to avoid snapping at them, suggests Rowett, because that won’t help you both address “why they’re doing it in the first place and how it’s making you feel”.

Instead, she continues: “Find a time when you feel relatively relaxed – like over dinner, on a walk, or when you’re watching TV – and say something like, ‘I’ve noticed you’re on your phone a lot when we’re together and it makes me feel unheard, like you don’t love me, or like you don’t want to spend time with me. Can you tell me why you do this so much? What’s going on for you?’ Then listen, really listen.”

“If they get defensive and try to deny it or say that they’re just really busy, see if you can hold your ground and probe deeper,” adds Rowett. “At the same time, be willing to think about your own relationship with your phone, because you may not be completely blameless either.”

How can you break the habit?

First of all, says Rowett, think of it as less ‘kicking a habit’ and more thinking about what’s triggering you to scroll more. “On a basic level, scrolling can give us big hits of dopamine, and a few studies have suggested that when we are feeling mentally not as good, we tend to scroll more,” she explains. “Think about whether you’re getting your mental health fundamentals in – enough sleep, hydration, eating regularly, getting daylight, some sort of movement, having connection with people you love, doing things for fun.”

But it’s worth remembering that phubbing, including partner phubbing, isn’t always a sign that there’s something wrong in your relationships. Often, people phub for totally innocuous reasons, just like they might get distracted thinking about what they’re going to have for dinner when they’re supposed to be listening to someone.

Still, if you really want to stop phubbing, Rowett suggests setting intentional times for when you’re on your phone and when you’re not, or establishing dedicated ‘phone-free times’, where you and whoever you’re with put your phones away for a set period of time – say, leaving them in another room while you have dinner at home, or putting them in your bags on ‘do not disturb’ mode when you’re at the pub.

“A final thing you could think about is including your phone in your connection together,” continues Rowett. “Send each other TikToks, text each other when you’re in another room, or do a ‘show and tell’, where you show each other funny videos. That way you’re using your phone as a way to stay connected, rather than it being a barrier. Let yourself be flexible with it. This isn’t something terrible that you must completely cut out of your life; it’s just something you need to learn how to form a healthy(ish) relationship with.”

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