Perhaps you’ve experienced a jolt of discomfort after realizing you’ve left home without your smartphone. How will I find where I’m going without Google Maps? What if someone needs to get in touch with me?
For some, that unpleasant feeling can spiral into sheer panic. Psychologists refer to an extreme fear of being deprived of one’s mobile phone as nomophobia, short for No Mobile Phone Phobia. (Clever, right?)
Nomophobia involves the fear of being without one’s mobile phone, or of having one’s phone but being without reception.
For an example of how severe nomophobia can be, consider a case study published in 2010. Medical professionals in Rio de Janeiro described the case of a man who had kept his mobile phone on him continuously since 1995, fearing that without his phone, he would be unable to contact anyone if he started to feel sick.
The man also had panic disorder and agoraphobia. In their case study, the doctors described how they had been able to treat these other conditions, but that they had not found a way to improve the man’s symptoms of nomophobia.
In the era of smartphones, almost all of us have had nomophobic experiences to a lesser degree. In fact, a survey of first-year medical students in India found that 60 percent had moderate nomophobia and 22 percent severe nomophobia.
Given the rapid changes in the way we relate to our phones in the twenty-first century, researchers are still trying to catch up in understanding the line where normal anxieties become problematic ones. Some researchers have proposed that nomophobia deserves a place in the DSM, the handbook most commonly used to diagnose mental health conditions in the United States.
Also up for discussion is why some people are especially prone to experiencing panic over the prospect of being without their mobile phones. Researchers have found that people who are more cooperative are less susceptible to nomophobia and that people who see their smartphones as extensions of themselves are at higher risk. These findings do hint at possible strategies for treating nomophobia, but not much research has been done yet on interventions for reducing nomophobia.
Overall, the research on nomophobia highlight a pattern that has emerged in recent years: new forms of technology have new implications for mental health that take time to understand. In this case, the anxiety of giving up one’s smartphone appears to be a normal feeling that, in certain contexts, can rise to levels that significantly interfere with people’s everyday lives.