Can You Just Put the Phone Down?

 In Expert Tips & Info, Family, Technology

I notice it all the time: I will be out to dinner with a friend and see couples, even families, out to eat together … but not really spending time together. Instead, they’re all on their cell phones at the table. Now, I realize that some people are fine with this. Having a partner checking Facebook on date night doesn’t bother a lot of people.

But it would bother me. In fact, it makes me absolutely crazy.

So, for a while, I have been interested in whether or not I am in the minority. Does it bother most people, or even do damage to our romantic relationships, when we spend our time checking out social media rather than our partner?

Generally speaking, excessive phone use isn’t good for us as individuals. For example, time spent on one’s phone predicts something psychologists Amy Cuddy and Maarten W. Bos call “iHunch”—poor posture resulting from looking down at one’s phone, which can in turn predict some really interesting (and typically negative) psychological side effects, such as worsened mood. (Cuddy has a fascinating op-ed on these findings in the New York Times: “How iPhones Ruin Your Posture and Your Mood.”

Given this, and other, costs to individuals of spending excessive time on mobile devices, it’s perhaps not so surprising that phone use can also be costly to our romantic relationships as well. Recent work by James A. Roberts and Meredith E. David identified a phenomenon they called “Pphubbing,” which can be detrimental to the quality of your relationship. Pphubbing is a combination of the words phone and snubbing—thus, snubbing your partner by being on your phone. It is the extent to which a person is distracted in the presence of his/her partner being on his/her phone.

Across two studies, recently published in Computers in Human Behavior, the researchers found that Pphubbing is negatively associated with feelings of relationship satisfaction. That is, the more your partner reports that you are on your phone while you’re supposed to be spending time together, the less satisfied your partner is with your relationship. Importantly, this effect occurred through the mechanism of conflict over phone use. That means that if there’s no conflict over phone use, it doesn’t predict reduced satisfaction in your relationship.

The authors also found that individuals who experience greater anxiety in their relationship (specifically, attachment anxiety) experienced greater cell phone-related conflict, thus making them more vulnerable to drops in relationship satisfaction. The authors also raised the possibility that Pphubbing could contribute to costs in individuals’ personal well-being (specifically, depression symptoms) as it negatively predicts relationship satisfaction, and relationship satisfaction is often associated with our general personal psychological health.

Together, this new research suggests that perhaps I haven’t misplaced my personal aversion to a partner who uses his or her cell phone excessively in my presence. It’s something that would cause conflict in my relationships, and thus probably predict reductions in my relational, and perhaps even personal, happiness. This may not be the case for everyone, but if your partner’s cell phone use bothers you, it might be time to talk about it—for the sake of your relationship.

Erica B Slotter Ph.D.
Erica B Slotter Ph.D.Me, You, & Us
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