Why the ‘Stop Phubbing’ Campaign Is Going Viral

It's not just because "phubbing" is really fun to say.

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Even the most solicitous humans have been lured by that mysterious bleep, tugging at our gaze like a child on our sleeve. Oh sure, you might ignore it most of the time. And you may even apologize when you can’t, guiltily begging just one moment. But that still counts. As what, you ask?

As phubbing: snubbing someone by paying attention to your phone instead of them in a social setting. And there’s an awareness campaign begging us all to stop it.

The “Stop Phubbing” campaign, started by 23-year-old Australian graduate student Alex Haigh, is getting press around the world. Though the movement’s website is decorated with faux statistics–like “92% of repeat phubbers go on to be politicians”–his message addresses people’s real tendency to stare at phones like they’re going to produce winning lottery numbers. Haigh and the ad company supporting his effort playfully suggest staging interventions or pasting up anti-phubbing posters. Overloaded, their site shut down earlier this week. “It has exploded,” Haigh told the Melbourne Herald Sun on Monday. “It’s one of those things that regardless of where you are, everyone has experienced it.“

Phubbing is really fun to say. And, like pointing or picking your nose, the action it describes is likely to be construed as rude. But the viral popularity of the campaign also reflects our modern ambivalence about cool gadgets. While there are no hard stats about phubbing rates, we do know that Americans love their smartphones. More than half now own one–55% according to the Pew Research Center–with app-loads of features that all double as distractions. Added up, those distractions can be isolating. Consider: the awfully common table at a restaurant where all seated are texting and no one is talking.

In 2011, author Sherry Turkle wrote a book called Alone Together, compiling qualitative research about “why we expect more from technology and less from each other.” Academics have tried to quantify the phone’s effect on society in the research lab, too. Last year, social scientists from the University of Essex published a study about how the mere presence of a phone can hamper interactions with new people.

Andrew Przybylski and his partner grouped 74 strangers into pairs and asked them to discuss something interesting that happened to them recently in one of two conditions: with a cell phone or a little paper notebook resting on a nearby book.  After chatting for 10 minutes, they responded to statements designed to asses relationship quality (“It is likely that my partner and I could become friends”) and those in proximity to a phone rated theirs more poorly.

In a second experiment, the researchers showed that discussing personally meaningful topics in the vicinity of a phone is particularly hazardous for relationships—likely because opening up makes us feel more vulnerable and therefore more threatened by the prospect of a listener being distracted. The phone, the Essex researchers theorized, “may inhibit relationship formation by reducing individuals’ engagement and attention for their partners, and discouraging partners’ perceptions that any self-disclosure had been met with care and empathy.”

And that is just the effect of a third-party’s phone laying bleep-less on a table. Phubbing has a much greater potential to hamper real-life connections by making people around us feel like we care more about posts than their presence. Hence, a “Stop Phubbing” campaign that combats active neglect-by-phone has resonated with people. If society’s big problem was bowling alone a decade ago, perhaps it’s scrolling alone now.