Technology as an Escape Mechanism

Standfor meets Emily Binder, marketing strategist and consultant, for a quick chat about phubbing.

When did you realize phubbing was an actual issue?

I had the Nokia 3360 in high school but most people didn't have cell phones yet, and we hardly texted. I don't remember phones playing a huge role in my college experience either (2005-2008), because for most people, phones were still dumb and we texted less often because it could get expensive.

It was when smartphones with internet access, free texting, and the Facebook app became widely adopted that technology etiquette shifted and phubbing became a problem. I'd say it was around that time and certainly in the next two years that phubbing became a baby issue (now it's a giant).

To put it in context with technology: the Like button came out in 2009, then Facebook's first mobile app was released in 2010, but it was pretty awful. Smartphones outsold PCs for the first time in the last quarter of 2011. Facebook improved its app, and with every iteration, it became smoother and more addictive, fueling phubbing.

In the U.S., having and responding to work email on your phone at all hours became expected as smartphone use increased, encouraging the unhealthy always-on worker mentality. The pendulum swung further when Instagram hit a penetrative point, having 150 million MAUs by late 2013, three years after launch.

I'd say 2012-2013 is when phubbing became really noticeable.

These social apps are engineered to be highly addictive. It's a business that profits off usage. I noticed people checking their phones not just for text messages (actual communication) but being addicted to refreshing their social feeds like slot machines (passive, receptive entertainment) because the apps for Facebook and Instagram became so addictive. Facebook became the internet for many people. These apps are designed to encourage addictive checking just like cigarettes and McDonald's fries cause cravings. Smartphones with apps, messaging, and email provide what became a socially acceptable escape mechanism for the boring or awkward moments of daily life.


Have you been a victim of phubbing? How?

Absolutely. Almost every day. I'll tell you about the most overt instance from the last month. On the 4th of July, I was with my friend Layla and her friends, Amanda and Charlie, whom I'd just met. I offered to treat everyone to a round of drinks at a Mexican place. Layla and Amanda were deep in conversation so I tried to get to know Charlie, who had just ordered a purple margarita. The topic of DUIs and cops had come up earlier, so I asked if he knew that one of the most prominent video watchdogs in the movement to record illegal police behavior was from Austin. I was one sentence in when Charlie picked up his phone, craned his neck down, and started swiping in his lap.

After a few seconds, I stopped mid-sentence, interrupting myself by going silent. I quietly watched him. He looked up and asked, "What?" I said, "I'll wait till you're finished." He began defending himself, rapidly explaining that he had ADD and was listening to me but that he always looked at his phone. I politely replied, "Sure. Let me know when you're done - I'm not going to talk to someone who's not paying attention."

Anecdotally, he did not thank me for his Purple Rita. And even though he followed me on Instagram the next day and liked my last three posts, I'm not really interested in pursuing a friendship.


Being a writer and a content developer, working online, how do you feel about the part technology plays in our lives nowadays?

Technology is an incredible connector. One of my favorite things about technology is that it disintermediates communication, commerce, and learning. We no longer need a middle man/woman who takes a cut or imposes his or her views, from selling goods and services to advertising to reporting news to spreading social justice. I'm happy that we have mediums to quickly share important information with a larger audience and to look up information or learn new skills faster and cheaper than ever before. We can be highly autonomous. We have democratized information and communication.

The beauty of this is that the playing field is much more level for anyone to have a voice. The downfall is the quality of content suffers with few editors and our racing obsession with instantaneous sharing, which prevents critical thinking about whether something is accurate, worthy, or helpful to the world. It has gotten quite noisy.


Because we’re human and we make mistakes… do you ever phub?

Admittedly, yes. I have consciously reduced it, but it happens. For example, the other day I was moving and had only a few hours left to sell my couch on three online marketplaces. I was anxiously awaiting the relief of getting it sold. While at dinner with my partner, I pulled my phone out of my purse to check for inquiries. He half jokingly said, "Quit phubbing me!" I felt like I had an excuse that time, but he was right. It could have waited.


In your opinion, what’s the best way to get over the problem?

First, be the change you wish to see: put your phone out of sight when you're with someone else. Second, we should call each other out. Anything else is tacit consent. See, #StopPhubbing marketing campaigns will garner likes and shares about something we all agree we should change, but to break the cycle of what is literally an addiction to dopamine-triggering behaviors, it's going to take friends, family, and coworkers effectively expressing their frustration, like I did with the ADD Purple Rita guy.

Things to try:

-Stop engaging with someone while they're phubbing you. Don't phub back, just pause until they get it.

-If the situation allows, stand up and walk away without a word. They may not even notice for a few minutes. Don't worry about seeming rude. The person is being incredibly rude to you! I like this because it's demonstrative and unexpected.

-Remember that the most effective tactic is kindly expressing that they are making you feel unimportant. Don't shame them or get angry; be calm but firm.

-If none of this works, stop spending time with people who phub you.

-Oh, and wear Standfor Quit Phubbing shoes like me!


When she’s not working, Emily likes podcasts, rollerblading and standing desks. Check out her blog.

Photo by Heather Haberkern

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