What is Nomophobia?
Nomophobia is a condition that affects many people, a 2008 survey found that 53% of people have been affected by it. Despite this, there is no agreed definition or treatment for it. This is because nomophobia was created as a marketing gimmick, and the name first coined alongside that 2008 survey by the UK’s Post Office.
The word is a portmanteau of ‘no-mobile phone phobia’, giving away its UK origins; it’s not nocellphobia. However, even though it has not been recognized by mental health professionals — yet — there is growing evidence that it affects many people1https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6341932/.
What are the symptoms of Nomophobia?
Despite its slightly tongue-in-cheek origins, there are many who would recognize, and have experienced, the symptoms. While some might consider it simply a case of fear of missing out, of FOMO, many of the symptoms will focus on the relationship with the phone.
People who suffer from nomophobia will find themselves unable to turn off their phone, often charging it unnecessarily to ensure there is no risk of the battery being depleted. They will ensure they always have their phone, often compulsively checking that they have it with them2https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0250509. And they will check their phone regularly, even if there hasn’t been a notification or alert to prompt them to do so.
While these might seem innocuous symptoms, and most people would probably consider them habits, or even prudent behavior, some people have more serious symptoms that might suggest a more formal anxiety disorder.
Those with nomophobia might suffer anxiety if they find themselves without their phone, or their phone has no battery of connection. Some might even have anxiety about this possibly happening, for example worrying about journeys in which cell coverage might fail for periods, or holidays where they are unsure if or how they can connect. Others might have anxiety, even without cause, wondering what would happen if there was an emergency and their phone let them down.
In extreme cases, nomophobics might find that they sacrifice other parts of their life, for example social interactions, to spend time on their phone, or find themselves late or missing appointments because they were lost in their phone. And like any anxiety disorder, it can create physical symptoms. For example, triggering the fight-or-flight response if they suddenly find themselves without a functioning phone.
The condition has started to be the subject of academic research. A 2015 study considered the phobia, and highlighted some common causes of the phobia among those who reported experiencing it3https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s43076-021-00068-0. These included a fear of being unable to communicate, feeling disconnected without a phone, worry about not being able to immediately access information, and the loss of convenience that a phone usually provides.
Does nomophobia actually exist?
There are those that suggest the condition is, at best, misleading. Those who challenge its existence highlight that a phone is, effectively, a medium. In just the same way as, say, an alcoholic is addicted to drink, and not the bottle it’s in, nomophobics are actually experiencing a different condition that is related to what they use their phone to do. For example, the nomophobia may actually be withdrawal from an addictive site, or a symptom of a wider anxiety disorder4https://www.semanticscholar.org/paper/Nomophobia%3A-A-Cross-sectional-Study-to-Assess-Phone-Prasad-Patthi/59297a3bb7dc83ebd43b6c6e411aabe39e3eb32b.
It is notable that those studies that have been done have shown that younger people are more likely to experience nomophobia. This, in part, might be due to the ubiquity of the smartphone. While older generations may have grown up, and even spent part of their adulthood, without a mobile phone and even millennials may have started using dumb phones. But those who are in their mid-twenties and younger are likely to have only ever had smartphones. This may have habituated them to a reliance on a mobile device that older people simply have not experienced.
This might be exacerbated by the design of applications and platforms targeted at younger people. The addictive qualities of social media sites have been well documented, however those platforms which tend to serve younger demographics, like Insta, SnapChat or TikTok are particularly well-known for their addictive design.
Can nomophobia be treated?
Nomophobia highlights the paradox of technology: it can free us, but it can enslave us too. The simple fact is that the convenience of the smartphone has resulted in, for most people, a reliance. Regardless of the risks of nomophobia, the ability to carry a single device that keeps them in touch, creates memories, entertains and has the world’s knowledge at their fingertips is something that most people will not willingly give up.
Treatment for most people, therefore, is likely to be a case of managing, rather than eliminating, nomophobia. And given the fact that it isn’t a medically recognized condition, it’s likely that self-help will be the only treatment available to most people. For those concerned about their phone use or nomophobia, the three Bs — boundries, balance, and breaks — are likely to be the key to controlling it.
Setting boundaries for phone use can help. For example, not allowing a phone in the bedroom, or leaving it in a different room at mealtimes. The boundaries may be difficult at first, but may quickly become welcome breaks.
Finding balance by not always using your phone can reduce reliance. When a phone can do anything, it becomes easy to become dependent. But finding alternatives can be easy. Using a laptop, or even a tablet, for research, or reading a paper book, rather than on your phone, can make a huge difference.
Finally, taking breaks is important. It is easy to become engrossed in a game, but make sure you put the phone done every now and again. Focusing on something in the distance and the world around you.
If self-help is not enough, then it might be a sign that there is a bigger problem. In that case, it is worth talking to a medical professional. While there might not be treatment for nomophobia, the symptoms might actually be from another condition, and treatments like medication or cognitive behavioral therapy that address the other condition will resolve the nomophobia too.
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