Smartphones have now been with us for 10 years, and play a huge part in our lives. We use them to take selfies, connect on social media and dating apps, read the news, and play interactive games. Many people check their smartphones as the last thing they do at night and then first thing in the morning. Train and bus passengers constantly gaze at their phones; people even stare at them when walking down the street, oblivious to others. There is no doubt that phones have changed the ways we behave and live.
Smartphones provide a way for people to stay closely connected with family and friends, and the array of options arguably create feelings of connectedness with others, but excessive use means that users forgo face-to-face interactions. Diverting one’s attention to a smartphone while in the company of another is a behavior known as phubbing, a portmanteau of phone and snub, and generally considered to be impolite or inappropriate in the context of social interaction.
If phubbing is impolite and inappropriate, what is the effect of such behavior on romantic relationships? Is it tolerated because of the closeness of romantic partners, or is its impact exacerbated because of it? Further, are there gender differences in emotional reactions and responses to phubbing?
McDaniel and Coyne (2016) suggest that smartphones can be intrusive and interfere with face-to-face interactions, with one partner feeling upset if the other becomes too absorbed in their phone when they are spending time together. Any distraction or intrusion when partners are together might cause upset, but are intrusions caused by smartphone use more of a problem? Does phubbing merely cause one partner to feel upset because they feel ignored? Or does it go further and cause them to be upset due to a feeling of jealousy as their partner is possibly connecting with a third party via their phone? Remember that one aspect of jealousy is the perceived threat to a relationship from another party.
Hanna Krasnova and colleagues investigated jealousy in partner phubbing and relationship outcomes (Krasnova, Abramova, Notter & Baumann, 2016). In their study, they employed participants between the ages 26 and 40, an age group they argue are most likely to use smartphones, while at the same time likely to be seeking sustainable romantic relationships.
The researchers asked participants to think of the last time their partner used their smartphone for too long in their presence. Participants reported that this happened:
When they were at home together (33.6 percent).
In bed before going to sleep (19.6 percent).
When they were home having a meal together (10.8 percent).
In the car or on public transport (9.8 percent).
When going out (4.5 percent).
(The remainder of the answers were watching TV, walking, and shopping.)
When asked to describe their emotions on these occasions, participants reported the following:
Loss of attention (28.6 percent).
Anger (19.4 percent).
Sadness/suffering (11.1 percent).
Boredom (3.2 percent).
Indifference (38.1 percent).
Happiness (4.4 percent).
The only notable gender difference was in happiness, with males reporting more happiness than females. However, compared to males, females reported more anger, sadness, and indifference.
The researchers then asked about participants’ coping strategies to phubbing. Reactions included:
Voicing intervention, such as making a request to stop using the phone (27.1 percent).
Showing curiosity by either looking at the other’s screen or voicing suspicion (7.3 percent).
Mirroring; for example, doing the same as a partner (6.9 percent).
Doing something else (13 percent).
Loyalty, such as showing tolerance, waiting, and understanding (22.3 percent).
Feeling negative—being annoyed or angry (7.3 percent).
No reaction (22.3 percent).
In terms of gender differences, males reported coping more in terms of loyal reactions compared to females. Further, males were twice as likely to exhibit mirroring behavior compared to females. Overall, it seems that males report more positive emotional responses and coping with phubbing behavior compared to females.
Finally, the researchers tested the relationship between partner phubbing, feelings of jealousy, and relational cohesion (the feeling of togetherness or emotional bonding). They found that it was not just annoyance or the feeling of being ignored when their partner used their phone that impacted on cohesion. Rather, it was more likely affected by an individual’s feeling of jealousy at their partner using their smartphone.
While jealousy is often discussed within the context of partner rivalry, jealousy is often experienced in other ways, such as a partner spending time with friends, or time at work; overall, jealousy can be associated with relationship deterioration. Previous research on jealousy revealed that not all interruptions to a social interaction are perceived equally; even from an early age we experience more intense feelings of jealousy towards social objects than inanimate ones (Hart et al, 2004).
The research of Krasnova et al. seems to suggest that we tend to see smartphones more as social objects—not just phones or computers—because they enable connection with others. Overall, it seems that it is not the process of phubbing itself (merely being ignored), but the feeling of jealousy (a partner connecting with another person) that phubbing triggers which ultimately leads to relationship dissatisfaction.