Last year, a Baylor University survey found that "phubbing," a made-up word that means snubbing your partner in favor of your smartphone, is ruining American relationships, by causing conflict over excessive cell phone use between partners.
Now, another group of researchers have determined what causes phubbing, and who is most likely to do it.
In a paper titled "How 'phubbing' becomes the norm: The antecedents and consequences of snubbing via smartphone," published in Computers in Human Behavior, University of Kent professors Varoth Chotpitayasunondh and Karen Douglas surveyed 251 men and women about their smartphone habits.
The goal of the study, Douglas told me in an email, was to determine just how problematic phubbing has become.
"Anecdotally people seem to view phubbing as a real social problem," she said. "People haven't really heard of the term 'phubbing' but are very familiar with it when it is described to them. Generally, people seem to be very annoyed when they are ignored and instead their communicative partners concentrate on their smartphones. However, there has been virtually no research on this phenomenon."
The participants in the study were given a questionnaire about their smartphone use, as well as whether they have phubbed or been phubbed in a relationship, and whether they view it as acceptable behavior.
They found that Internet addiction, fear of missing out (FOMO), and self-control issues predicted smartphone addiction, which in turn predicted phubbing behavior. Phubbing was also found to have a chain reaction effect—the more a person felt they had been phubbed, the more likely they were to become phubbers themselves.
"In an environment where people are constantly switching from being the protagonists and recipients of this behavior, our data suggests that phubbing becomes seen as the norm," they write. "People may therefore assume that others phub in the same way that they do themselves, therefore perpetuating the behavior."
In other words, when people experience phubbing and notice the behavior occurring frequently around them, they may be likely to conclude that this behavior is socially acceptable and start doing it themselves.
From a medical or pathological standpoint, the researchers found evidence that in many cases, phubbing should be considered symptomatic of what is officially known as "problematic smartphone use."
Problematic smartphone use, Douglas said, is an actual, diagnosable pathology, measured on a smartphone addiction scale, in which patients rate the extent to which they overuse their phones (i.e., rating their agreement with items such as "Missing planned work due to smartphone use" and "The people around me tell me that I use my smartphone too much"). People who score above a particular number on this scale can be classified as being problematic smartphone users.
Based on their phubbing behavior, 13% of their study's participants could be classified as problematic smartphone users, she said.
Douglas and her coauthor found that women phub more frequently than men. 53.1% of women reported phubbing in social situations at least twice a day, whereas only 28% of men admitted to doing it. They also found that women are more likely to be phubbed themselves—67% of women reported being ignored in favor of a smartphone at least twice a day, while only 36.6% of men did.
Douglas said these findings are in keeping with previous findings of gender differences for other technology-related behavior, like preferences for online activities, and overall smartphone addiction. She emphasized that more research is needed to make firm conclusions about gender differences in phubbing, but the preliminary results suggest that phubbing, for now, is a more common phenomenon among women.
In conclusion, they write, phubbing behavior, phubbers and phubbees can be commonly seen everywhere in today’s modern society, suggesting that it has become acceptable or normative—despite its potentially harmful consequences.
Rob covers business, economics and the environment for Fusion. He previously worked at Business Insider. He grew up in Chicago.