Pop quiz. Nomophobia is:
a) Fear of former LA Dodgers pitcher Hideo Nomo.
b) Fear of a mostly unknown neighborhood in Portland where ex-hipsters go to shave off their beards, e.g., "no mo" life as a bristly poser.
c) Fear of being without your mobile phone or without mobile phone service.
If you guessed (a), you're probably a member of the 1996 Colorado Rockies. If you guessed (b), then we would probably enjoy hanging out. If you guessed (c), you are correct. Essentially, the term nomophobia is a mashup of "no mobile phone phobia." The term originated in 2008 in conjunction with a study commissioned by the British Postal Service (perhaps fearing that smartphones were putting them out of business). The study found that of the 2,163 people surveyed, approximately 53 percent admitted to feelings of anxiety when they were unable to access or use their mobile phones. Another U.K. study, this one conducted in 2012 (after several years of smartphone proliferation), found that 66 percent of people reported anxiety when separated from their phones. Other recent studies have found that digital devices may result in compulsive checking, increased levels of stress and possibly even addiction.
Now, a newly-published study has supposedly provided us with a means of understanding, measuring, and possibly diagnosing nomophobia. The researchers began by conducting in-depth interviews with nine college undergraduates who self-identified as heavy smartphone users. From that, four dimensions of nomophobia were identified:
• Inability to communicate
• Loss of connectedness
• Inability to access information
• Loss of convenience
Based on these initial findings, a 20-item nomophobia checklist was developed. A representative sampling of items on the checklist reads as follows:
• Running out of battery in my smartphone would scare me.
• If I were to run out of credits or hit my monthly data limit, I would panic.
• If I could not check my smartphone for a while, I would feel a desire to check it.
• If I did not have my smartphone with me, I would be anxious because I could not keep in touch with my family and/or friends.
Did you identify with any of those? (I hit four of four.) If so, you may be nomophobic. But don't run off to therapy just yet.
Full disclosure: I never leave home without my fully charged iPhone. Never. And if/when my battery runs low, I get a little anxious and stressed out. So yes, by the standards provided above, I'm probably nomophobic. However, this "disorder" is not exactly causing problems in my life. I'm not lying awake at night because I'm worried that if I fall asleep I might miss an important text message. Nor am I eating compulsively to distract myself from that all-important call that hasn't come. And when I go to the movies, I actually turn my phone all the way off rather than setting it to silent (because silent-mode is never entirely silent), and this bothers me not at all.
Think of this another way: If you took away my car, forcing me to rely on LA's highly unreliable public transit system, I would absolutely be worried, anxious, irritable, etc. However, this very rational fear of being inconvenienced hardly qualifies as pathological. In other words, the fear of losing something important and/or the anxiety that stems from having something important taken away from me is perfectly understandable, and not a phobia.
Now back to my smartphone. If I left the house to go on a cross-country business trip without it, I would probably experience anxiety. And if I noticed that I didn't have it before I boarded the airplane, I'd almost certainly go back home to get it, even if that meant switching to a later flight. After all, I use my phone for business, connection, gathering information, passing time, ordering food, etc. Nevertheless, I don't see my potential anxiety as a problem. And why should I? I mean, I also use my computer, my television, my car and a whole lot of other modern conveniences for very similar purposes, and I typically become anxious if/when one of those items is not working properly. However, this anxiety is not pathological. Getting upset that I missed the most recent House of Cards episode does not mean I need counseling to address my nohoucarphobia.
Admittedly, there are people out there who struggle with a smartphone obsession, checking for calls, texts, emails, social media updates and the like almost perpetually, and experiencing severe anxiety whenever they are separated from this constant connection. These folks may wish to seek counseling if/when this begins to negatively affect their lives. But let's be honest: These are nearly always people who are predisposed to compulsivity and/or anxiety -- with or without a smartphone. For these folks, the phone is just a means to an end. Plus, this is a relatively small percentage of smartphone users -- far less than the 53 to 66 percent who would qualify as nomophobic based on the standards listed above.
So do I think that nomophobia exists? Most definitely. But I also think that two very important criteria should be considered before we start labeling people with a new pathology. First, I would look for a consistent inability to quit or curtail usage, despite attempts to do so. Second, as I've alluded to already, I would look for directly related adverse consequences. In other words, if people are obsessed with and become anxious when separated from their phones, and they've unsuccessfully tried to cut back, and their lives are being negative effected by their smartphone obsession, then they might be nomophobic and in need of counseling. Short of that, they needn't be too worried, nor should they allow themselves to be swept away in the media hype.
Robert Weiss LCSW, CSAT-S is the author of numerous books, including Closer Together, Further Apart: The Effect of Technology and the Internet on Parenting, Work, and Relationships, co-written with Dr. Jennifer Schneider. For more information you can visit his website, www.robertweissmsw.com.