You might be cheating on your spouse with your smart phone


“Phubbing” — a hybrid of phone and snubbing — describes when a person ignores or fails to be present with another because they are engaging with their smart phone.

In her practice as a relationship therapist, Nicole McCance is seeing more and more conflicts where a third party is to blame. Not another human, mind you, but a seductive alternative all the same.

“Couples don’t generally come in saying ‘our presenting issue is one or both of us being on their phone too much,’ ” says Toronto-based McCance. “It’s usually, ‘we’re not communicating’ or one person saying ‘I feel lonely in this relationship and I don’t know why.’” McCance will spend time talking with her clients, trying to get to the root of the issues, and frequently the smart phone habits of one (or both) people will come up as a significant point of resentment and stress.

“Phubbing” — a hybrid of phone and snubbing — describes those instances when a person ignores or fails to be present with another person because they are engaging with their mobile device. The term was created in 2012 by a team of language experts as part of a marketing stunt for Macquarie dictionaries in Australia, along with a #StopPhubbing campaign that aimed to raise awareness around cellphone addiction and its toll on human relationships. That was five years ago — before “mobile first” became the mantra of many media companies, before the mainstream-ing of sticky social media apps that have the average smart phone user checking their phone more than 100 times per day.

In Canada we are spending about two hours of leisure time on our smart phones daily and those numbers are even higher among the under-35 age bracket. Needless to say, we are not devoting nearly as much time to our personal relationships, and even when we are spending so called “quality time,” a lot of us are still doing so with one hand on the “like” button.

A study conducted at Baylor University in 2015 (“Cell Phones Can Damage Romantic Relationships, Lead to Depression”) provides the most in-depth research to date on the prominence and impact of phubbing. In a survey of adults inromantic relationships, almost half of respondents reported being phubbed by their partner, and nearly half of those people said being sidelined for a smart phone was causing a conflict in their relationship. Moreover, the study found a correlation between phubbing and overall relationship dissatisfaction, general life dissatisfaction and depression, indicating that the issue isn’t as silly as its (totally silly-sounding) name suggests.

“When you’re phubbing the person you’re in a relationship (with), you are telling them that they are not as important as whatever you are doing on your phone,” says Wade Sorochan, author of 2016’s UNSocial Media: Virtual World Causing Real World Anxiety. Sorochan jokes you only need to step into a restaurant these days to witness the phubbing epidemic in full force — tables-for-two where both parties sit staring into their screens. This anti-social “date night” behaviour has become so common that some restaurants in the U.S. have started offering discounts to customers who turn their devices off. (A good move, says Sorochan, since diners who experience phubbing at a restaurant report lower levels of satisfaction, not just with the company, but with the atmosphere and even the taste of the food.)

While a phubber may be checking the weather or playing Candy Crush, McCance says that ignoring your S.O. in favour of the aspirational images on social media can be especially damaging. She describes a common scenario where a person is scrolling their Instagram feed while hanging out with their partner: “When they do eventually look up, they may say something like, ‘Babe, we don’t go on enough vacations,’ or ‘why don’t you ever send me flowers?’”

One thing you’re not likely to see on social media: a perfectly lit image of two people sitting in the same room, staring into their respective screens, since phubbing is the exact opposite of #relationshipgoals.