Quit Phubbing Already

Oct 22, 2013 1 Min Read

Put That Phone Down

Charlene deGuzman’s short film depicting life in smartphone-saturated times, I Forgot My Phone, went viral with 25,076,998 views within one month of its release. The two-minute video features deGuzman being phubbed the entire day by the many different people in her life.

When was the last time you got “phubbed”? While phubbing may be a relatively new term, it has already been listed in some dictionaries. The amalgam of the words “phone” and “snubbing” was coined by Alex Haigh to describe “the act of snubbing someone in a social setting by looking at your phone instead of paying attention”.

Of late, phubbing has become increasingly obvious. While phones have been around for awhile, phubbing mostly involves smartphones, gadgets allowing individuals to read e-mails, news, log into social media platforms, WhatsApp, surf the net and so much more.

Haigh, a 23-year-old graduate from Melbourne did not just coin a new word. He created a website, stopphubbing.com, last year to combat bad phone etiquette and sparked action by various parties; there are even free wedding place card printables circulating with messages like: “You belong here, Your phone doesn’t.”

His publicity campaign has blown up overnight, prompting a global discussion on mobile devices and social decorum. Haigh did not invent a new social condition. He highlighted it, amplifying feelings on the matter. The current vote on the website stands at 16% all for phubbing and an overwhelming 84% (29,309 votes) against it.

The website displays a variety of useful infographics and interesting illustrations to show just how widespread the phone snub has become. Shocking statistics on the site include:

  • If phubbing were a plague, it would decimate six Chinas.
  • An average restaurant will see 36 cases of phubbing per dinner session (which is equal to spending 570 days alone, while in company of others).
  • 97% of people claim that their food tasted worse while being a victim of phubbing.

Additionally, the site lists the world’s biggest phubbing offenders with the United States taking the lead at about 35 million instances. The UK is not too far behind with a third of Britons confessing to being “phubbers”.


Apart from being a funny sounding term, phubbing is a disturbing condition crippling communication as we know it. Perhaps the most compelling line on Haigh’s site is his call to action.

He projects a future where couples sit in silence, relationships are reliant on status updates and face-to face communication is eradicated.

He says:

Something must be done and it must be done now.

Sadly, this situation is not so distant into the future; most of us can already see it happening around us.

A study conducted by the University of Essex sides with the belief that phubbing negatively affects bonding, concluding that phones may stand in the way of forming relationships by preventing genuine attention to be given. As a result, individuals may feel that their needs have not been met with understanding and concern.


Considering communication is 55% non-verbal, 38% tone and 7% words, online communication is in fact a challenge. Online communication factors greatly on text. Tone is displayed through usage of punctuation through caps lock or punctuation marks, very easily misused. Emoticons have recently entered the scene to display emotion.

Studies show 87% of teenagers would rather text than communicate face-to-face. However, the chances of miscommunication occurring is very high. This aspect is captured very well by the directors of Noah who attempted to reveal how people use the Internet and how young people talk to each other on it.

In Noah, the 17-minute film debuted at Toronto International Film Festival’s Short Cuts programme, a high-schooler misinterprets what he sees on his girlfriend’s Facebook profile, concluding she is cheating on him. He proceeds to break up with her by signing into her profile and changing her relationship status among other things. Clearly the communication breakdown is obvious.


Some may argue that engaging in social networking has caused them to “meet many people” or “make many friends”. A study involving 50,000 consumers in 46 different countries in order to explore their cyber-socialising habits has in fact revealed Malaysians have the most number of friends on social networks.

The average number of digital friends a Malaysian has is 233, followed by 231 in Brazil and 217 in Norway. This is in comparison to just 12 friends in Japan, and 68 in China. However, Malaysians were also the heaviest users of social networking sites, spending nine hours online per week, not leaving many hours for physical contact.

Interestingly, studies have shown that the human brain is limited when it comes to maintaining friendships. Professor Robin Dunbar from Oxford University has conducted studies on social groupings throughout the centuries. Based on his theory “Dunbar’s number”, he asserts that regardless of how sociable we are, the neocortex, limits us to managing 150 friends.

He even applied this theory to explore the possibility of the “Facebook effect” stretching the limits. He made comparisons of the online “traffic” of sociable people and ones with fewer friends, but his findings showed that there was no significant difference between the two.

“The interesting thing is that you can have 1,500 friends but when you actually look at traffic on sites, you see people maintain the same inner circle of around 150 people that we observe in the real world,” says Dunbar.

Misconstrued identities

Catfish, a 2010 American documentary film directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman brings to light another aspect of social networking. The documentary is about a young man, Nev, building a romantic relationship with a young woman on Facebook.

It all begins when Abby Pierce, an eight-year-old child prodigy artist sends Nev a painting of one of his photos. They become friends on Facebook, eventually leading to Nev befriending the entire family: her mother, Angela; her husband, Vince; and her half-sister, Megan.

Joost and Schulman film Nev as he begins an online relationship with Megan. He discovers some things that don’t sit right but is urged to continue the relationship for the documentary.

He decides to travel to Michigan to confront Megan directly but finds out that it was really Angela posing as Megan using an alternate Facebook account and mobile phone.

The film was a success, inspiring the MTV reality TV series, Catfish: The TV Show where Nev helps people in similar situations. The series brings to light the very reality of fake identities or profiles. How then do people say they make new friends when they don’t know who the person is for sure?

Social networking withdrawal

As alarming or worrying as it all seems to be, there seems to be a group of people quite resistant to the social networking pull. Some refuse to create accounts and some are beginning to deactivate theirs for a variety of reasons.

Among reasons commonly cited:

  • It is addictive.
  • It promotes cyber-stalking.
  • It is time consuming.
  • It is distracting.

All of the above can be further broken down into many other aspects but one aspect waiting to be addressed is the belief that social networking sites tie in with narcissism.

According to University of Michigan’s study, narcissistic young adult college students favoured posting on Twitter while narcissistic middle-aged adults from the general population posted more frequent status updates on Facebook.

However, researchers were unable to determine if narcissism led to extensive use of social media, or if using social media promoted narcissism, nor if other factors actually come into play.

A comic on zenpencils.com on the other hand echoes the attention-seeking sentiment. The social media generation is said to be a “culture of seven-year-olds” with every new status update simply being a request for acknowledgement.

There appears to be a whole new world in the social media realm, one that is best tread with care and thought.

Drop us a line or two in the comment box below or email us at editor@leaderonomics.com. For more Starting Young articles, click here.

Published in English daily The Star, Malaysia, 19 October 2013

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This article is published by the editors of Leaderonomics.com with the consent of the guest author. 

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