Phubbing: From Social Disorder to Family Disintegration

Published On: March 1, 2023 08:45 AM NPT By: Fr. Augustine Thomas, S.J.

Fr. Augustine Thomas, S.J.

Fr. Augustine Thomas, S.J.

Father Augustine Thomas has a PhD in ‘Leadership Studies in Organization Development’ and currently serves as the Principal of St. Xavier’s College, Maitighar, Kathmandu.

The term ‘phubbing’ was added to the Oxford dictionary to define a new behavior of the mobile era. Phubbing, a combination of ‘phone’ and ‘snubbing’, refers to being engaged on the phone, ignoring the presence of the person you are with. Phubbing is not just the behavior of an individual alone; it has evolved into an ugly face of social dysfunction.

What makes it a social dysfunction? We often hear people questioning us, “I phoned many times, but you did not answer my call.” A new expectation has morphed into social life that the phone must move with the person and that the call must be answered regardless of the recipient's situation. This blatant disregard for the privacy of the individual is normalized in most settings. Feeling no qualms about attending to calls during a conversation, meetings, or meal is an example of how snubbing is normalized in social scenarios.

When a group of young people go out to have coffee, the mobile draws more attention than the friends in the group. Such collective phubbing leaves the gathering as a time spent together rather than a time spent bonding together. The bottom line is that mobile phones have become an intruder in our social lives, normalizing the behavior of taking someone's presence for granted.

Understanding family through the lens of cyberpsychology

The phrase ‘cyberpsychology’ first appeared in the 1990s. The researchers had already noticed that people behave differently in online and face-to-face interactions. Some studies showed most of the negativities of a person are emitted when given the opportunity to vent online. Cyberpsychology has become an area of relevant study today, with professional research journals dedicated to it.

One of the copious components of cyberpsychology is that internet use has a direct impact on the psychological functioning of not only teens but also adults. Generation Alpha (people born after 2010) is popularly known as the screen age generation as communication and relationship, agreement and disagreement, the development of self-esteem, and the process of understanding oneself, all occur as a result of what is absorbed from the online platform, especially information on social media.

Despite being advanced in the intellectual aspects of the brain, this generation often has a limited conducive environment for their psychological well-being and growth. This has left the recent generation with inadequate coping mechanisms, crushing loneliness, and social exclusion. And the social unit that can provide a healing environment is the family. Growing up becomes accidental and prone to numerous emotional setbacks when the family fails to recognize its role in assisting the young. Therefore, the role of the cyber world should be controlled at home, and because phubbing is a social disorder, the home should be a place to put it right.

Slipping into a scary understanding of family

Various psychological limitations have emerged as the crippling outcome of phubbing among the late Millennial to Alpha generation. The heightened individualism juxtaposed with the sense of a new understanding of family, that is, a family lived together rather than a family bonded together, has become a new normal. This threatens the free-flowing communication in the family. Strict boundaries created through ‘likes’ and ‘dislikes’ continue to drive family relationships to emotionally disintegrated individuals living together. The bricks of emotional fences created around the individualistic world of the screen age generation need to be carefully and empathetically demolished. This calls for better preparedness of the parents on how to safeguard the families as a place of empowerment.

Phubbing as a threat to the deep family bond

Parental care entails additional responsibilities in the present age. Four decades ago, the parental role in raising children was minimal. Life was spontaneous, conversations were deep, and the family bond was very strong. The fact that family relationships were grounded in reality played a crucial role in their ability to bond through adversity and storms. There were no virtual relationships, friendships, or cyber intruders in the family.  

Families have faced cyber intruders in the form of gadgets and virtual world information throughout the last two decades. This intruder has introduced newer addictive elements, such as various social media platforms and games, to children and vulnerable adults. Phubbing has become an accepted family behavior, with all family members glued to their phones rather than engaging in meaningful conversations with one another, an activity that binds them together as a loving family. The underlying danger of such behavior is that it weakens the familial bond, limiting the members’ influence on one another.

A study conducted in the US by Travis Kadylak of Michigan State University on family phubbing expectancy violations and well-being among U.S. older adults confirmed that “Older adults tend to view younger family members as distant, detached, and unwilling to listen to them when they engage in phubbing behaviors, which may lead older adults to feel disrespected.” The study further confirmed, “When older adults perceive family phubbing expectancy violations, they are more likely to report lower levels of interpersonal mattering.” Then, the quality of family life is undoubtedly at stake. In cities, it is observed that a large number of the present age generation appear to be more comfortable in their own rooms and live an isolated life with shallow family relationships.

What can we do?

First and foremost, inculcate the feeling of ‘we’ and ‘us’ instead of ‘I’ and ‘mine’ in the family. A sense of sharing develops a sense of belonging. 

Second, plan your screen time. The Western world has already begun emphasizing limiting screen time. Only certain hours of screen time are allowed for school-going children, and that too only with the permission of the parents. 

Third, keep the phone out of the dining room and make eating together as a family practice. Mealtime is a sacred time when the family members cherish the presence of each other and share personal experiences of the day.  It’s the time to reconcile the differences and reboot the mind.

Four, improve real-time family engagement. Spend the weekend with your family hiking, walking, cooking meals together, or doing anything that does not involve any gadgets. Give spending time in nature with your family more space on your weekend schedule. 

Five, value the presence of each member of the family. Pay attention to their stories while respecting one another’s points of view. Talk about personal experiences rather than theories or ideologies. It’s the personal stories that foster relationships. It’s then the ‘we’ feeling grows in the families. 

As the virtual world and social media continue to shape the psychology of individuals, embrace real relationships and celebrate family time.


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