Is 'phubbing' ruining your relationship? Probably not as much as you thought

·4-min read

The impolite habit of ignoring a partner while answering emails or scrolling on a smartphone is such a widespread phenomenon that behavioural experts even have a term for - “phubbing”.

The word, a contraction of “phone snubbing”, was coined within the last decade to highlight the damage caused to relationships when overuse of technology leads to the neglect of real life communication.

Yet new research has suggested that technology is now becoming such a part of everyday life, it no longer holds the same power to irritate and cause strife.

Take a new study into phubbing, which was released this week by Baylor University in Texas.

Researchers surveyed more than 450 people and found that 95 per cent felt phubbing was not personal and accepted that phones were often used simply out of habit.

The team found that although phubbing is still a “social allergen” that can exasperate, it usually only tends to cause distress when a relationship is already on the rocks, or when a partner does it intentionally to harm.

“Smartphones have become part of the social landscape and their presence is taken for granted,” the researchers concluded.

Technology not as damaging as previously thought

The new research is one of several recent studies to suggest that technology is not as damaging to health or relationships as experts once feared.

Earlier this week, Cambridge University found that reducing television viewing to less than an hour a day could help prevent more than one in 10 cases of coronary heart disease.

But, in a curious secondary finding, there was no such correlation for leisure computer time - suggesting that technology is not as harmful as vegging on the sofa watching box sets.

The researchers said that people may snack less when surfing the web or are more likely to break up the activity with other pursuits.

Similarly, a recent study by Griffith University, in Queensland, Australia, found more smartphone use was associated with better parenting.

Screens before bed don't disturb sleep

And two recent studies have upended the common belief that watching screens before going to bed disturbs sleep.

In research published in the Journal of Sleep Research, the University of Buffalo, New York, found sleep quality - measured by length of time in rapid eye movement and deep sleep - was unaffected by media use in the hour before bed.

Dr Lindsay Hahn, co-author of the study, said: “We found that media use just prior to the onset of sleep is associated with an earlier bedtime and more total sleep time, as long as the duration of use is relatively short and you’re not multitasking, like texting or simultaneously scrolling social media.

“Watching a streaming service or listening to a podcast before bed can serve as a passive, calming activity that improves aspects of your sleep.”

Last year, the University of Fribourg in Switzerland found using social media for 30 minutes before sleeping had no effect on sleep quality.

Writing in the journal Sleep Medicine, the team concluded it was only the fact that social media time ate into sleep time that caused problems, not social media itself.

It backed up research by the University of Oxford in 2019, which found little difference in overall sleep time between people who spent eight hours a day in front of a screen, compared with those who largely abstain.

Impact of smartphones on brain function

Cutting-edge research has also suggested that computers and smartphones may actually improve brain function.

An intriguing project by Washington-based Sapiens Labs has been studying the impact of modern life on brain development, by comparing individuals from relatively “pre-modern” villages in India to those living in urban hubs.

The results suggested that the transition to smartphones and the internet has a significant impact on a key feature of brain activity called the alpha oscillation.

Oscillations in the alpha range have been found to appear prominently on brain scans when people are awake with their eyes closed. They appear to be linked to memory capacity, attention and how well people perform in cognitive tests.

The Sapiens Labs team found that the feature is largely absent in adults without a secondary education or access to modern technologies. And increased smartphone use was one of the biggest drivers of the increased oscillations.

“It is not simply the ability to call and communicate verbally with more people that has altered brain physiology, but rather the enhanced ability to access information that a smartphone provides,” the authors concluded in an article last year in the journal Scientific Reports.

Animal studies have consistently shown that more stimulating environments bring structural brain changes and cognitive enhancements. It now seems that technology is having a similar impact on humans.

“Unlike any other organ, the brain evolves across the lifespan not just by consuming nutrients, but also by consuming external stimuli,” said Dr Tara Thiagarajan, founder and chief scientist at Sapiens Labs.

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