Ignoring friends to look at phone associated with mental health issues

A woman looks at her mobile phone as the sun sets over the ocean in California
Reuters file photo

According to a new study by the University of Georgia, there are a variety of factors that may drive individuals to ignore their friends in favour of an electronic screen.

The study also highlighted how snubbing friends to look at a phone screen is linked to various mental health issues including depression and anxiety. The findings of the study were published in the journal “Behaviour and Information Technology”.

Smartphones have made multi-tasking easier, more understandable, and at times compulsive. But in social settings, these devices can lead to a form of contemporary rudeness called “phone snubbing”, the act of ignoring one's companions to pay attention to a phone.

While it may be commonplace, snubbing one's friends can have serious repercussions on relationships.

The study revealed positive associations between depression and social anxiety on increasing phone snubbing. It says depressed people are likely to snub their friends more frequently, and socially anxious people, who might prefer online social interactions to face-to-face communication, might also exhibit more phone snubbing behaviour. Personality traits such as neuroticism also influence phone snubbing behaviour.

"And of course, some people who have high social anxiety or depression are more likely to be addicted to their smartphone," said Juhyung Sun, lead author on the paper who completed her master's degree in communication studies at UGA.

The very ordinariness of phone snubbing suggested some fundamental insights about how technology interrupts social interactions -- and how quickly they are accepted, if not embraced.

"I observed that so many people use their phones while they are sitting with their friends at the cafe, any dining time, regardless of the relationship type," said Sun, currently a doctoral candidate at the University of Oklahoma.

She first considered some negative reasons behind phone snubbing, smartphone addiction and relatedly, the habit of constantly reading notifications that pop up on the screen.

"People are really sensitive to their notifications. With each buzz or sound, we consciously or unconsciously look at our phones," she explained, noting that the device's wide utility across applications from weather to breaking news are key drivers fostering this dynamic.

"A third significant finding in the study revealed that agreeable individuals have a lower instance of phone snubbing in the presence of their friends. People who have agreeableness as a personality trait tend to show cooperative, polite and friendly behaviours in their interpersonal relationships and social settings," Sun added.

"They have a high tendency to maintain social harmony while avoiding arguments that can ruin their relationships. In face-to-face conversations, people with high levels of agreeableness consider phone snubbing behaviour rude and impolite to their conversational partners," Sun further said.

And though agreeable, people may prioritise strong friendships, an exploratory study by the researchers, revealed phone snubbing also to be more likely in the presence of three or more people.

That dynamic may influence the prevalence of phone snubbing in the context of a work environment.

"It's ironic that while so many people believe that phone snubbing behaviour is rude, they still do it," Sun said.

"A majority of people phone snub others, and in a group, it may seem alright, because it's just me, the speaker does not notice I am using the phone. The number of people in a group can be one reason," Sun explained.

Alternately, disabling or turning over a phone can indicate a show of respect for a situation and focus on a person.

"That, too, is a signal that I am listening to what you are saying, this meeting is important and I am focusing on you," Sun further said.

Jennifer Samp, professor in the UGA Franklin College of Arts and Science’s department communication studies and Sun's advisor on the project, believes that the act of phone snubbing may have even greater implications once the larger public returns to face-to-face interactions after the pandemic subsides.

"People relied heavily on phones and other technologies to stay connected during the pandemic," Samp said.

"For many, staying connected in a more distanced manner via texts and video messaging was more comfortable than face-to-face interaction. Will people, particularly the anxious ones, still phone snub when physically reunited? Time will tell," Samp concluded.