The situation: Cutting-edge 21st-century technologies provide unlimited opportunities for communication. Distance is no longer an obstacle to staying in touch with family and friends.
In fact: As smartphones become more advanced, their negative effects on personal relationships get worse. More and more people are becoming addicted to the internet, finding themselves in a paradoxical situation where there is lack of actual communication amidst an abundance of contacts.
Researchers from HSE University, Saint Petersburg State University, Moscow Engineering Physics Institute (MEPhI), and Kostroma State University have analyzed data on internet addiction and ‘phubbing’ behaviour from the past decade. They found that more and more people are suffering from smartphone addiction. At the same time, situations in which communication is split into real and virtual formats are becoming part of everyday life, which is bad for our relationships. This is also confirmed by another survey of more than 500 young people from different regions of Russia. Although phubbing was found to be the new normal among young people, the respondents often feel like victims of phubbing and its negative consequences. The results are published in Monitoring of Public Opinion: Economic and Social Changes.
Internet addiction continues to grow globally against a backdrop of the total ‘smartphonization’ of humankind. Smartphones play a number of roles in people’s lives — they can be reliable friends, business partners, travel companions, and a kind of ‘baby’ that requires time and attention. More and more people feel uneasy without their smartphone, which is often the first thing people see and touch when they wake up.
According to a 2018 study by the Pew Research Center, 59% of respondents reported owning a smartphone, and another 31% said they used mobile phones. The authors note that smartphone screens have become 20% bigger over the past five years, which encourages people to further immerse themselves in the virtual world.
As of 2018, South Korea was the most heavily connected society, with 94% of its population owning a smartphone. This was followed by Israel and Australia, where 83% of the population were smartphone owners, and Russia, where a total of 59% of people owned them. The lowest percentages were reported in Tanzania (13%), India (22%), and Indonesia (27%).
According to the researchers, the negative effects of smartphone use include using phones when driving, using phones instead of focusing on classes at school, wrist and neck pain, backaches, dry eyes, headaches, tinnitus, risky sexual behaviour, and mental health issues.
One of the new problems created by smartphones in modern life is ‘phubbing,’ the practice of snubbing other people in real life in favour of your phone. On the face of it, this problem does not seem too serious, but the new research proves otherwise.
The term phubbing is a portmanteau of the words ‘phone’ and ‘snubbing’.
In communication theory, phubbing is a form of non-verbal interaction or an act of ignoring someone you are talking to while giving attention to your mobile phone instead, resulting in broken eye contact and a loss of interest in the conversation. ‘The roles in this dyad include the person being ignored (the victim or ‘phubbee’), and the one doing the phubbing (the perpetrator or ‘phubber’),’ explain the authors.
Although the authors note that young people see phubbing as normal behaviour, studies show that it has a negative impact on interpersonal communication in terms of both content and quality. ‘Communicators get less satisfaction from such interactions, are less likely to trust their partners, lose a sense of connection to person they’re talking to, and feel jealous and irritated,’ the researchers say. Moreover, some foreign studies show that the mere presence of a mobile phone within view lowers the quality of communication and interferes with feelings of closeness.
Phubbing can also affect romantic couples’ relationships. For instance, it has been found that the longer partners live together, the more negative emotions they can feel towards each other because of phubbing, and the less satisfied they are with their relationship.
Studies show a positive correlation between phubbing and internet addiction, negative emotions and prejudice. Those with an unhealthy relationship to the internet are less likely to be sociable, friendly, and conscientious, and there is a clear link between internet addiction and emotionally focused coping strategies.
In order to investigate internet addiction and phubbing in Russia, the authors analyzed the results of a survey conducted among young people in autumn 2019 by the Kostroma Regional Division of the Russian Society of Sociologists. The survey covered 525 young people aged 17–29 from different Russian regions, with 42% of the respondents from Kostroma.
The respondents were asked to fill in an online questionnaire on the VK social network. The Phubbing Addiction Scale and Interpersonal Dependency Inventory were used as methodological tools. The researchers applied descriptive statistics and factor analysis to analyze the findings.
Descriptive statistics suggest that young Russians demonstrate a moderate level of phubbing. ‘For clarity, if we take the average phubbing addiction values assessed on a 5-point scale and convert them into percentages, we can say that over 25% of respondents are in the habit of browsing on their phones while talking to others. About 20% said that people around them do not like when they stare at their phones, while 26% are convinced that their partners are not irritated by their phone use,’ say the authors.
The survey also shows that 75% of young people always have their phones close to hand, and 56% check them right after waking up in the morning. About 33% feel uneasy without their phone.
Interestingly, the majority of respondents do not consider themselves phubbers, but rather victims of phubbing. They say that others are always checking their phones, surfing the internet, keeping their phones within sight, etc.
The younger the respondents, the more addicted to their phone they feel. Girls are more likely to become addicted to electronic devices. For boys, devices are used more as a way of demonstrating a dominant position in relationships, as reflected in the statement: ‘I feel content when I’m paying attention to my phone instead of others.’ Girls more often note anxiety and lower self-control: ‘I pay attention to my phone for longer than I intend to,’ ‘I feel anxious if my phone is not nearby’.
The authors then identified three factors that affect phubbing addiction:
1. ‘Smartphone addiction’. This is characterized by the statements ‘I’m on my phone even when I’m chatting with my friends,’ ‘When I’m with others, I’m browsing on my phone,’ and by а growing trend of addiction: ‘Each day I’m more and more addicted to my phone’.
This factor also includes an appeal for emotional support from others. ‘Difficulties in establishing emotional attachments, shyness, and a lack of self-confidence often encourage young people to prefer virtual communication,’ the researchers say. Smartphones can become an ‘emergency exit’ that can be opened to relieve the painful strain of reality by mixing it with virtual emotions.
2. Interpersonal dependency. By contrast, this factor shows that insecure people with addiction issues do not always use their devices as behavioural protection, as this does not always solve the problem of communication.
3. Phone control. This reflects the situation when a gadget is used as a simple tool unrelated to the user’s psychological problems.
‘Therefore, control of one’s devices can simply be a habit, and shyness does not necessarily have to be compensated by gadget addiction compounded by phubbing behaviour,’ conclude the authors.
According to experts, Generation Z (those born between 1997 and 2012 approximately) are at a greater risk of becoming addicted to the internet at an early age. More and more young people see phubbing as the norm.
Meanwhile, the authors say that smartphones only create the illusion of emotional support. In reality, no emotional attachment is made either with real or virtual conversation partners. ‘However, we can now fragment these attachments, ‘flipping through them’ and ‘switching them over’ via the options on a smartphone menu. This infinite rotation of virtual and real conversations triggers a constant resetting of emotional threads and storylines with a regulated dose of affection,’ the researchers say. This results in poorer-quality relationships.
The researchers highlight the apparent paradox here: phubbing negatively affects the quality of communication, and emotionally depleted, distracted communication contributes to anxiety, a lack of self-confidence, and protective aggression — which in turn exacerbate phubbing behaviour. According to the researchers, schools and universities should take special measures to break this vicious circle in interpersonal relationships.
Prof. Aleksandr Maksimenko, School of Psychology, HSE University
Prof. Olga Deyneka, Department of Political Psychology, Saint Petersburg State University
Lubov Dukhanina, Head of the Department of Pedagogy and Methods of Natural Science Education, MEPhI
Maria Saporovskaya, Head of the Department of Social Psychology, Kostroma State University