Phubbing by George Merrill

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Two of our children and four of our grandchildren joined us for Thanksgiving. The grandchildren, girls, range 17 years on down. Early in the day everyone winds up in the den. Most like to watch the Thanksgiving parade and, later in the day (why I have no idea) the dog show and so the room can get packed. The den’s not that big.

I’d been in the kitchen paring vegetables and after finishing up I walked into the den. Except for my wife and me, both our children and the four grandchildren were in the den – three girls and their Dad were on the sofa; Mom and one grandchild sat in chairs. The television was on. Ostensibly everyone was watching the parade or, in a perfect world, would have been.

Three of the grandchildren were texting. One was playing a video game on her iPhone and Mom and Dad were either texting or getting text messages. As for the television screen, it may as well have been blank. As for the audio part, it could just as soon have been the sound of the one clapping.

In the interests of full disclosure I confess I’m a Luddite and while I love my family, I find this behavior abominable. There’s no other word for it . . . well, maybe one and I learned of it only recently. It’s called phubbing and it is reaching epidemic proportions. The word is a conflation of phone and snubbing. It refers to individuals interacting with their iPhone (or other devices) rather than engaging with the human beings that they may happen to be with.

Phubbing is addictive. More and more and more people find it hard to resist. This is a serious. The phubbers have the frightening potential to transform us from homo sapiens, the typically gregarious social animals that we are, into hyped up phubbees, zoned out on the latest news blip, phone call or text message. All it takes is a tiny electronic blip or hum and we’re hooked.

Only last week The Washington Post reported studies about the many couples that are straining to maintain their love for each other while struggling with the allure of their androids and iPhones. This is not fake news, either. Researchers at Baylor University surveyed over 140 people and found that “almost half had been ‘phubbed’ by their partners, that is snubbed in favor of checking social media, news or texts on their iPhones.”

The managing editor of The Week Magazine, Theunis Bates, confesses to being caught up in the seductions of the electronic media and says he has been both a phubber and phubbee so he knows first hand the stresses involved.

Even should a phone not be in use, psychologists claim its presence alone in the middle of the table in the restaurant may cause interpersonal problems. Studies reveal that “simply leaving the phone out while dining . . . can interfere with your connection to your dining partner – perhaps because their eyes keep flicking toward the device eager for new alerts, suggesting that a piece of technology is more interesting than you are.”

Soon a kind of pavlovian response develops for compulsive iPhone users. Just by tapping a screen they are immediately rewarded with an “always updating streams of photos from family and friends, and tweets from the president.” Information varies widely and may include reports of the latest sexual abuse allegations being leveled at high-end capitalists, movie stars, clergyman and congressman. For the less discriminating phubbers there’s always a Trumpian rant or an endearing image of a friend’s new cat.

There’s mounting evidence that the rewards that this constant stream of data affords us are similar to the rush recreational drugs provide. Our electronic devices can turn us into addicts. As of 2015 there were an estimated two billion smartphone users with the number expected to rise by twelve percent in the next year.

Statistics are sobering. The average smartphone user checks in about eighty times a day either on Facebook, instagram feed or web links. I did however consult Google (I was alone when I did) to find out how many cell phone users there are worldwide. I want to emphasize here that it was my initiative to make the contact and only in the service of fact-finding. I want the record clear that I’m not addicted. I enjoy constitutional immunity.

 

St. Paul once said that we discover our strengths through weakness. I am a total electronic klutz, hopelessly inept with any electronic device. When trying to figure which icon to tap to retrieve a call or get weather, I behave like the centipede that gets flummoxed trying to decide which leg to put down first. I am not at all seduced by the lure of electronic beeps and buzzes. Actually I’ll frequently leave my iPhone at home because I find it intrusive and get irritated when I start messing with it. Being an electronic klutz has delivered me from the hand of the marketers and the snare of the phubber. The downside is that I’m often clueless as to what’s going on in the world that day. Hey, as I see it, maybe that’s not a bad thing. Most of it is demoralizing, anyway.

As with other addictive behaviors, confessional stories of personal struggles with phubbing are beginning to emerge, ironically, many on social media. Heather Wilhelm from the National Review writes to alert us as to what is happening: “Who among us hasn’t looked up at least once, smartphone in hand, slightly dazed, only to discover that precious bundles of minutes and hours have somehow slithered by, lost to all eternity, usually in exchange for no discernable enlightenment at all.”

In a more sober reflection I think that phubbing today does have an ominous side. It’s as if we in the post-modern era were like ten year olds who found a shiny nickel-plated revolver in the attic. We’re enthralled with its glittering properties, but have no idea how destructive it can be to ourselves or to those around us.

Phubbing may compromise our ability to be attentive, either to our environment or to each other. We’d literally become scatterbrained.

Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist.  A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.

 

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