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Digital akrasia: a qualitative study of phubbing


The present article focuses on the issue of ignoring conversational partners in favor of one’s phone, or what has also become known as phubbing. Prior research has shown that this behavior is associated with a host of negative interpersonal consequences. Since phubbing by definition entails adverse effects, however, it is interesting to explore why people continue to engage in this hurtful behavior: Are they unaware that phubbing is hurtful to others? Or do they simply not care? Building on interviews with students in a Danish business college, the article reveals a pronounced discrepancy in young people’s relationship to phubbing: While they emphatically denounce phubbing as both annoying and disrespectful, they readily admit to phubbing others. In other words, they often act against their own moral convictions. Importantly, participants describe this discrepancy as a result of an unintentional inclination to divert attentional engagement. On the basis of these results, the article develops the notion of digital akrasia, which can be defined as a tendency to become swept up by ones digital devices in spite of better intentions. It is proposed that this phenomenon may be the result of bad technohabits. Further implications are discussed.

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    Although perhaps less evidently, other concepts in the field of phubbing research have similarly negative desirability characterizations in that these concepts explicitly refer to illicit disturbances of ongoing social interactions. Technoference, for instance, is a portmanteau of technology and interference (McDaniel and Coyne 2016b), while parallel communication refers to “the phenomenon of mobile mediated communication with absent people that interrupts ongoing face-to-face conversations with physically present interaction partners” (Keidinger-Müller, 2017:328, emphasis added).

  2. 2.

    Interestingly, empirical research on habit-breaking currently favors the reflective strategy of thinking, “Don’t do it” and being mindful of slipups (Quinn et al. 2010). This result, however, may be an artifact of the study’s construction as a diary study in which participants were instructed to make reports “when they recognized the need for self-control” (p. 501). Participants were thus asked to report the strategies they employed after they became aware that they wished to refrain from performing certain behaviors.


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Correspondence to Jesper Aagaard.

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Aagaard, J. Digital akrasia: a qualitative study of phubbing. AI & Soc 35, 237–244 (2020).

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  • Attention
  • Distraction
  • Habits
  • Phubbing
  • Smartphones