Technology and health Social media or antisocial? October 01 2020
Tracy McBeth Tracy McBeth Journalist

Social media makes it possible to connect with people at the touch of a button, but studies show it also has the potential to damage our most important relationships. We share some tips to help get the balance right.

Do you ever feel the urge to glance at that message, or notification while you’re chatting to someone? 

It’s called phubbing – or ‘snubbing’ someone you are speaking to by looking at your phone – and chances are it’s happened to you or you’ve phubbed someone else.

Phubbing has become so normalised, some people simultaneously phub each other, while meeting up in person to catch up. 

But what triggers this urgent feeling to check your phone?

Yeslam Al-Saggaf, an Associate Professor in Information Technology at Charles Sturt University says boredom only plays a minor role.

As part of a survey into the phubbing phenomenon he found smart phone addiction, lack of self-control and fear of missing out (FOMO) were the main reasons behind it.

“The addiction is not just to the smart phone, texting or to the social media apps but also to games within the smartphone so there are lots of types of addictions at play,” he says. 

Research shows about 80% of Australians use social media.

According to the 2018 Yellow Social Media report, 35% of people check their socials more than five times a day.  

Almost 20% of people surveyed said they were happy to check social media while eating with friends and family. 

15% said they felt anxious when they were unable to access their social media accounts.

Professor Jane Burns, Mental Health and Wellbeing Innovator at Bupa, says it’s the pre-technology equivalent of not being invited to the party or not being part of the ‘in crowd’.

“Because we are social creatures and because our activities online mirror what we would do offline, then these anxieties are real and the technology just exacerbates it because it’s 24/7,” she says. “We’re now switched on around the clock so the accessibility and that endorphin rush of getting a like or getting a connection or having someone read your feed or watch your TikTok video is very real and is part of our brain make up.”

How phubbing affects our relationships

While it might seem harmless enough to check a quick message or notification mid-conversation – it can have a big impact on our most important relationships.

“Phubbing can heighten feelings of jealousy and gives the person on the receiving end the impression that the phone is more important than them,” says Al-Saggaf. “It can reduce the relationship satisfaction and can undermine the relationship quality and those things can lead to depressive symptoms for the person at the receiving end.”

Al-Saggaf’s survey found people were most likely to phub the people closest to them including their partner or close friends – and were far less likely to phub someone in the workplace.

“Phubbing erodes trust and it diminishes the connection, closeness and ability to show empathy.”

A 2012 study showed simply placing a smart phone on the table, even if no one was using it, reduced the quality of the connection with a person.

“It sends a message to the person that at any second you're going to reach out for your smartphone and become busy.”

Professor Burns says if we’re not present in the moment, we’re less likely to notice cues that someone might not be coping well. 

“We’re less likely to be open to communication, we’re less likely to be connected and we’re less likely to value the contribution the person is making,” she says. “These are all things we know are good for mental health and if technology blocks that then it can become a problem.”

Checking in on your tech use

Al-Saggaf says if you’re worried about your smart phone use there are plenty of apps to help track your usage.

But it’s also important to consider the impact on those around you.

“Have an honest conversation with friends and family and think about establishing boundaries on the use of your smartphone when you're talking to others.”
 Professor Burns agrees.

“Having some agreed rules with friends, family or colleagues can help keep you present and, in the moment,” says Professor Burns. “You might for example agree when you have dinner together that you don’t have your phone at the table.” 

That doesn’t mean you can’t show friends a funny video or fact check something on your phone to settle a dinner time debate.

“There’s no hard and fast rule but setting parameters may help keep you connected and in the present.”

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Tracy McBeth Tracy McBeth Journalist Tracy is a journalist with a passion for promoting good health; both mentally and physically.