Higher Living Reflections


A ritual I love opening my day with is reading the daily Merriam-Webster email with the day’s word. Often it is one with which I am familiar, but more often it is a word the definition I have lost memory of or I am unacquainted with. Merriam-Webster is not my only source for expanding my vocabulary. I learn new words while reading books, essays, and even op-ed columns.

I was introduced to a new one in an article about the escalation of teen loneliness and its correlation to the smartphone. Phubbing. It is a portmanteau, a word formed by combining elements of two different words, like smog or brunch. In this case, phone + snubbing.

Phubbing is the act of ignoring others by focusing one’s gaze on their smartphone. While adults are becoming more practiced in the art, teens are perfecting it, much to their psychological and social development detriment.

Phubbing moves the concept of elevator discomfort to a higher level. The uncomfortable quiet we often experience on a ride between floors is understandable given the confined space. But it also tells us something about our nature: We have an innate need and even compulsion to communicate with others. When we ignore people in close quarters, it feels unnatural, which it is. The saving grace for elevator passengers is that uncomfortable silence generally ends relatively quickly.

Phone snubbing is in a league of its own and has disturbing implications. It not only is exacerbating America’s loneliness pandemic, it is also causing anti-social behavior to set in at an early age. Teen years are the ones when a young person transitions from childhood dependency to adulthood self-reliance. They are so critical that since our days when we roamed the African savanna and hunkered in caves, cultures have developed and used rituals to help move its young through their coming-of-age years. They did so that their soon-to-be men and women could become effective members of the community. Over the past few millennia, such rituals became the domain of religions—Confirmation in Catholicism and Bar and Bat Mitzvah in Judaism—and schools with proms and graduation ceremonies.

I am not sure, though, if phubbing completely captures what is happening. Snubbing is an intentional act of disrespect. Showing deliberative disdain for another might be true in certain phubbing cases, but the reason many, especially teens and young adults, bury their noses in their phones is due to their insecurity and poor social skills. When that is the case, it would be better to consider phubbing a symptom rather than a disease.

A key purpose of providing positive coming-of-age experiences for pre-adults is to foster healthy interpersonal relationship development. It is essential to their wellbeing. One of the ironies of teaching tweens and teens was that while the incessant chatter could drive a teacher batty, it was an indicator of healthy growth, assuming the chatter was appropriate and task oriented when the lesson was underway. Phubbing short-circuits that process, which means the mental health of the individual is compromised which impacts their ability to function effectively in their personal lives.

But phubbing has larger implications for their future professional and civic roles. And that in turn has immense ramifications for our entire society. We witness daily how growing societal fissures are threatening our democratic processes. If they continue to widen, we would be in danger of becoming socially and thus politically dysfunctional. And if that should happen, we can kiss off the American experiment.

We have survived the Civil War, the Great Depression, the Cold War, social upheavals, and many other crises. And we are dealing with several consequential crises in present time. But I wonder if phubbing might be the most insidious and potentially destructive of all, one that no miracle vaccine would be able to halt.

(Photo courtesy of Tracy Le Blanc)

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  • Becky Cook
    August 3, 2021 at 12:30 pm

    New word for me! I have huge concerns over our obsession with smartphones but I had not given much thought to this phenomenon. Thanks, Jerry once again for giving me more food for thought!