Guilty of Phubbing Your Spouse or Child? How It Hurts Your Bond

How being attached to your phone can separate you from people you love

phubbing - father ignoring son while using cell phone
Parent-child relationships can be harmed by too much cell phone use, or "phubbing.". Jamie Grill/Getty Images

Have you ever been to a school play, concert, or other event and noticed how many parents are glued to their phones instead of their child's performance? Or witnessed parents on the playground who barely look up from their screens to engage with their child, or couples who are texting, emailing, or sharing on their phones instead of talking to each other? Or have you ever been guilty of this behavior yourself, or has someone you love done this to you?

 These are, unfortunately, all-too-familiar examples of phubbing, or phone snubbing--an increasingly common behavior that research shows can harm relationships.

What is Phubbing?

Phubbing is the act of choosing to look at a cell phone instead of engaging with someone who's in their company. A new study shows that it can harm romantic relationships by decreasing relationship satisfaction, and ultimately, even lead to depression. For the study, researchers at the Hankamer School of Business at Baylor University, in Waco, Texas, conducted two surveys: In the first one, they asked 308 adults a series of questions that helped them develop a "Partner Phubbing Scale"--a list of 9 common smartphone behaviors that can be characterized as phubbing. The items on the list included behaviors like the following:

  • During a typical mealtime that my partner and I spend together, my partner pulls out and checks his/her cell phone.
  • When my partner's cell phone rings or beeps, he/she pulls it out even if we are in the middle of a conversation.
  • If there is a lull in our conversation, my partner will check his or her cell phone.

The second survey used the "Partner Phubbing Scale" and other criteria to measure phubbing in romantic relationships.

They surveyed 145 adults and found that as many as 46.3 percent or respondents reported being phubbed by their partner and that 22.6 percent said this phubbing caused conflict in their relationships. The researchers found that the more often couple time is interrupted by one partner's paying attention to his or her cell phone, the less likely it is that the other partner is happy in the relationship.

While this study looked at partner relationships, phubbing can also negatively impact the quality of a parent-child relationship, says the study's lead author James A. Roberts, PhD, professor of marketing at Baylor University and the author of Too Much of a Good Thing: Are You Addicted to Your Smart Phone?. Children can feel just as hurt as a partner would when they are ignored, whether it's because their parent isn't paying attention to their performance in a play or not really listening to them and checking their email while they're supposed to be having a conversation.

In fact, in a recent annual report, Highlights magazine found that as many as 62 percent of kids ages 6 to 12 reported that their parents are distracted when they try to talk to them and that the most common distraction was cell phones.

The message from studies such as these are clear: When spending time with someone you love, be it your romantic partner or your child, put down the phone and put it away. And since parents can especially have very limited time to spend together as a couple, and families today are so busy with work and homework and other activities, it's all the more important that they try to connect to each other, not to a mobile device.

Some Strategies to Try to Keep Phubbing in Check

  • Establish a rule in your house that there will be no using phones (or emailing or posting to social media, etc.) after a certain time at night.
  • Keep dinnertime free of cell phones, and use it as an opportunity to reconnect with each other and talk about your day. 
  • Use an app to monitor how much your kids use their phones, and use it to track your own use.
  • Keep time with your spouse--like date night or catching up on the day before bed--free of cell phones.
  • If you feel like you're having a hard time not using the phone constantly, consider seeking help. Research shows that cell phone addiction is real, and if you feel that you don't have control, talk to a therapist who specializes in addiction counseling.
  • For more tips on how to control your own or your child's cell phone use, read, "12 Ways to Control Your Cell Phone Use and Stop Phubbing, Being Rude."

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