How do you feel when someone uses their smartphone in the middle of your conversation? Taken for granted? Ignored? Unconnected?
It is common these days to see people glance at their phones every few seconds during meetings and even on dates. But that aside.
A hilarious video that has been doing the rounds on the internet for about five years now shows a modern well-to-do family of a husband, wife and their two kids, who scarcely hold any conversations.
At the dinner table, only the clatter of cutlery and porcelain is heard; the kids remain glued to their smartphones gaming, while their parents drown themselves on social media.
The family ends up looking like a group of zombies in a regular household. While it is laughable, the video captures the real tragedy of our times, where smartphones have taken precedence over regular, actual face-to-face interactions.
Texting someone or liking that photo on Instagram whilst talking with another person may appear harmless, until it becomes disastrous.
The practice is called “phubbing”, a portmanteau of “phone” and “snubbing”, a trend that has scientists across the world worried. Phubbing is an irresistible habit that happens virtually involuntarily, but it can be addictive. It has also become a matter of course these days.
On average, more than 17 per cent of smartphone users “phub” at least four times in a day, according to a study published in 2016. Psychologists fear that this phenomenon has made face-to-face talks less meaningful and less satisfying.
A few years back, strangers would meet at bus stops, hospital waiting rooms and bank lounges and ignite vibrant conversations, almost effortlessly. It was easier then to make acquaintances. Enter the era of smartphones and such lively banters are no more.
Vincy Mighulo, a data analyst, would rather be on her smartphone through the entire length of a long-haul journey or simply sleep than strike a conversation with a stranger.
“I might pass off as aloof, but sometimes you’ll be courting trouble by attempting to talk to your neighbour. It depends with my mood at that time and also how the person approaches the conversation,” Mighulo says.
It has become a normal spectacle these days to fail to steer a conversation beyond the first few stages during a date. The two then immerse themselves into the private world of their smartphones, which leaves one wondering what the point of the date was.
David Manyasa, a final year student of business management at Moi University, has been a victim of phubbing.
“She was on her phone the whole time, giggling and making funny sounds. I had to keep repeating what I was saying to her, which was very irritating. It felt like a one-way conversation. I nearly walked out on her at one point,” he recounts.
He adds: “Our conversation was minimal and sporadic. At the end of the date, we departed, disappointed that we had scarcely known each other.”
Manyasa’s case is not isolated though. People prefer to mind their own business nowadays. But while it is excusable to ignore strangers, what happens when phubbing occurs at the family level?
Anita Awuor, a psychologist in Nairobi, says that while it may not always be possible to have subjects of common interest to spur conversations, families should discuss topics where each family member can lend some input.
“Discussing what is showing on TV, for instance, and any other topic that everyone in the household can relate with would help to fuel conversations,” Awuor advises. She says that checking one’s phone on a date is to disregard the other person’s presence.
She says: “Unless it is an emergency, glancing at your phone every minute sends the wrong signals about you, especially if you are meeting the person for the first time.”
Experts say that lack of conversations has made humans being into robot-like creatures that no longer value healthy face-to-face conversations. Yet phubbing is worse than just the feeling of being ignored.
In a more recent study titled “The effects of Phubbing on Social Interaction” that was published on the Journal of Applied Social Psychology, researchers argue the practice threatens four critical elements of belongingness, self-esteem, meaningful existence and control.
This leads to poor quality communication and less satisfying relationships. Additionally, researchers underline the significance of phubbing as a “modern social phenomenon” that requires further investigation.
A 2012 study by Andrew K. Przybylski and Netta Weinstein found out that the mere presence of a mobile device negatively affects closeness, connection, and conversation quality between people, therefore interfering with relationships.
The situation has become so grave that it formed part of the address of Pope Francis to young people in May. The Pope expressed his concern that the youth had become “too enmeshed in a virtual world of cell phones and other technology” which separated them from real human contact.
But this is not a problem of young people alone. And as Andrew Njoroge, a communication expert and founder of Ayen Global, observes, the internet is largely to blame for the erosion of the value of human interactions.
“The bulk of information available online today is not constructive. Its value is incomparable to face-to-face interactions,” Njoroge says.
According to him, people must learnt to put real conversations before Internet and social media activity.
“When families meet but end up spending their time on their iPads and smartphones, it defeats the very purpose of such a gathering,” Njoroge argues.
Before taking out your phone to chat during a conversation, always stop to evaluate the damage that your actions will likely have on the feelings of your interlocutor, and consequently, your relationships.