Nomophobia: Challenges and Management

Dr. Rajesh G. Konnur

The recent suicidal epidemiology among students due to Blue Whale gaming is alarming. Children, especially students are haphazardly using mobiles and electronic gadgets. The moment they are separated from their devices, anxiety and frustration hits them like a typhoon. Recent mental health literature research suggests that children and students suffering from nomophobia feel lonely with their phones and gadgets. Thus, these people isolate from real circumstances.

According to Envoy (2014), Nomophobia is defined as “the fear of being out of mobile phone contact”. The term, nomophobia, is an abbreviation for no-mobile phone phobia and it was first coined during a study by a U.K. Post Office in 2008 to investigate anxieties mobile phone users suffer. In order to refer to people with nomophobia, two other terms were introduced and colloquially used; nomophobe and nomophobia. A nomophobe is a noun and refers to someone who is affected with nomophobia. The term, nomophobic, on the other hand, is an adjective and is used to describe the characteristics of nomophobes &/or behaviors related to nomophobia.

The 2008 study in the UK, conducted on over 2100 people, demonstrated that some 53% of mobile phone users suffered from nomophobia (mail online 2010). The study also revealed that men were more prone to nomophobia than were women, with 58% of male participants and 48% of female participants indicating feelings of anxiety when unable to use their phone.

Another research study conducted by Secuor Envoy (2012), a security company in the UK, surveyed 1000 employees and showed that the number of people suffering from nomophobia increased from 53% to 66%. Unlike the 2010 study, the 2014 study that women were more susceptible to nomophobia, with 70% of the women compared to 61% of the men expressing feeling of anxiety about losing their phone or not being able to use their phone. In terms of the relationship between age & nomophobia, the study found that young adults, aged 18-24 were most prone to nomophobia with 77% of them identified as nomophobic, followed by users aged 25-34 at 68%. Moreover, mobile phone users in the age group of 55 & over were found to be the third most nomophobic users.

The recent definition by Nardi (2014), defines nomophobic as follows:

“Nomophobia is the modern fear of being unable to communicate through a mobile phone or the Internet… Nomophobia is a term that refers to a collection of behaviors or symptoms related to mobile phone use. Nomophobia is a situational phobia related to agoraphobia and includes the fear of becoming ill & not receiving immediate assistance.”

Another definition by International Business Times (2013) seems to put an emphasis on the feelings of anxiety caused by unavailability or inaccessibility of mobile phone.

Nomophobia or “no mobile phone phobia” is an anxiety which people face when they feel they could not get signal from a mobile tower, run out of battery, forget to take the phone with them or simply do not receive calls, texts or email notifications for a certain period of time. In short, it is a psychological fear of losing mobile or cell phone contact.

Nomophobia and smart phone addiction share many qualities, but the primary trait each disorder shares is that the smart phone is a source of relief and comfort. The key reason for this that smart phones have become central in communication and are perceived necessary to own in order to use the phone compulsively to the point where it can be defined as behavioral addiction.

Both nomophobia and Smart Phone Addiction Disorder have many comarbid disorders, two or more disorders within an individual , such as : anxiety and panic disorder, other forms of phobia (social phobia), obsessive compulsive disorder, eating disorders, any disorder under the umbrella of depression from dysthmia to major depressive disorder, alcohol and drug addiction, as well as other behavioral addiction disorders (including mobile &/or internet dependence, gambling, online gambling, compulsive shopping and sexual behaviors) and personality disorders (borderline, antisocial and avoiding).

 Symptomology of Nomophobia:

The suffering client expresses multiple symptoms. The classical symptoms of nomophobia are anxiety, depression, trembling, perspiration, tachycardia, loneliness and even panic attacks in extreme cases.

Smart phone addiction & nomophobia share comarbid disorders such as social phobia, obsessive compulsive disorders, loneliness & atypical depression.  The DSM-5, states that non-substance addictions and conventional addictions have a high comorbidity with other disorders such as alcoholism and major depressive disorders.

Etiology of Nomophobia:

There are several causes/ etiology for nomophobia.

Psychosocial Role:

According to Clayton et al (2015), smart phone addiction may have psychosocial causes stemming from the need to keep in touch with others. One theory that supports that is FoMO (Fear of Missing Out) (Przybylski et al 2014). FoMO is defined as “a pervasive apprehension that others might be having rewarding experiences from which one is absent; FoMO is characterized by the desire to stay continually connected with what others are doing. Just like smart phone addiction and nomophobia, FoMO was established as a result of smart phone use and is based upon the psychosocial need to stay in good social starding with peers and to be constantly involved among in-groups. This may provide a connection with social groups & an outlet for daily stresses.

Embodied Cognition  and Extended Self:

Embodied Cognition can be defined as “psychological processes are influenced by the body, including body morphology, sensory systems and motor systems (Glenberg, 2010).  It can be further defined in more specific views. Margaret Wilson defined six views of Embodied Cognition as: cognition is situated, time pressured, we off-load cognition into the environment (such as maps and recordings to ease our cognitive load), the environment is part of our cognition [the mind did not evolve independently from the environment], cognition is for action, and off- line cognition is body based. Specifically, the third view that cognition can be off loaded onto the environment applies to smart phones. Since smart phones have internet connectivity, there is no cognitive task for calling declarative memories like facts and events. Instead of reinforcing memories, smart phones limit the ability to remember declarative memories with web searching.

Extended Self Theory is defined as “an individual’s possessions, whether knowingly or unknowingly, intentionally or unintentionally, can become an extension of one’s self”. For example, someone [basketball player or carpenter] who uses a tool (basketball or hammer) regularly encodes the tool into their neural network. The weight and dimensions of the tool are innate to the user and can manipulate the tool with ease compared to someone who has never used the tool. The Extended Self Theory can be applied to smart phone users as well. Clayton (2015) explains smart phone loss as the “unintentional loss of a possession which should be regarded as a loss or lessening of self”.

Digital/ Cyborg Anthropology:

Digital/ Cyborg Anthropology is a field of Anthropology that “explores the production of humanness through machines” (Gary 2005). Case (2007) stated that smart phones have “effects of widespread mobile telephony on the social and spatial relations of individuals in the post modern state”. Distinct from current phones, older phones were situated in one area such as the home or in telephone booth. Modes such as mail took time. These modes had time and space as factors and Case argues that because phones are mobile and in real time, phones can compress time and space, giving users more control over communication.

Case also argued that there is a “techonosocial movement where there is a degree of control over social interaction because of technology. Because there are no nonverbal cues such as facial movement or body position, she states that “a cell phone interaction provides one half of a conversation equation.” Posturing and making one’s image seems more socially desirable.

She also argued that phones provide a “liminal” space. Liminal in the context of mobile-phones is defined as “The intersection between face-to-face interaction and cell phone conversations is a “betwixt” & “between” social space, in which a caller is neither fully engaged with those who are physically co-present, not fully mentally co-present (except for the technically mediated auditory connection) with the person on the other end of the line and shows the isolation of smart phone communication.

Flow, Impulsivity & Reinforcement:

Many studies on phone addiction attribute phone use to either positive or negative experiences & reinforcement (Przybylski et al, 2013). The study measured flow, the mindset of an individual who is fully immersed and hyper focus in an activity whilst experiencing pleasure (known colloquially as “in the zone”) & convenience of a phone to the amount of use to see if there was a correlation. The researchers found that flow had a positive correlation with phone use but connivance allowed flow to provide instant gratification & positively reinforced smart phone use.

While flow is a positive reinforce for smart phone use, impulsivity may be regarded as the negative reinforcer. One study in particular found that impulsivity, the urgency to check a phone & the inability to focus on a task was positively correlated with perceived dependence of a smart phone (Billieux, 2007). In the context of addiction, impulsivity is associated with negative affect. If an addict feels negative emotions, they take their stimulus to stop the negative emotions. Billieux et al (2010) found that their participants used their phones when they were feeling “bad or “bored” & would negatively reinforce their behavior.

These patterns of positive & negative reinforcement follow the same pattern of behavioral addiction, which has been shown to follow the same neurological path as substance addiction in terms of reward & reinforcement (Grant, 2011).

Collectively, these rewards ( social gratification, more  control of social interaction through liminal space, offloading cognitive tasks, avoidance coping) compounded with consequences (anxiety, or nomophobia, FoMO, impulsivity, isolation) shows that excess smart phone use follows the same pattern as any addiction in terms of positive and then negative reinforcement, especially if the user has an existing disorder (social anxiety, depression, low self-esteem ) & that nomophobia can be referred as smart phone addiction.

You are Nomophobic when:

  • If you wake up in the night every two hours just to check your phone.
  • You check your phone even when you are having lunch or dinner.
  • You start to panic when your phone is about to run out of battery & you can’t rest until you put it on charging.
  • Feeling that you’re missing out on life when there is no signal.
  • Urge to answer the call, no matter how busy you are.
  • Taking mobile phone to wash room/ bathroom.
  • You’ve checked your phone twice reading this article.

It is detrimental because:

  • It causes anxiety. People suffering from nomophobia tend to suffer from anxiety when separated from their phones. This causes high blood pressure. It also reduces attention span of an individual, which can harm one’s work productivity.
  • It’s a colossal waste of time. Avoid looking at your phone, while doing other activities. Recent research suggests that this multitasking doesn’t work, as you can’t retain and process information at the same time.
  • It affects your sleep patterns. The blue light emitted from phone, signals to your brain that it’s time to wake up and it suppresses melatonin, the hormone responsible for dictating your sleep rhyme.
  • It leads to skin trouble. Constant contact with your phone can cause acne, allergies and dark spots. Other symptoms in long run seen are deafness and cancer.
  • It affects your relationship with friends and family, thus affecting your social skills. It’s considered rude if you constantly check your phone, when you’re talking to them.

Coping with Nomophobia:

  • Limit the use of mobile phone.
  • Turn off the mobile before going to bed.
  • Customize notifications in phone. Constant notifications from various apps in your phone are distracting.
  • Delete apps that are not required.
  • Use watch & calculator instead of apps.
  • Take phone breaks while working.
  • Balance screen time and in-person time each week. For every hour you invest in front of a screen, you invest in human contact.
  • Try a technology every month, where you actually go for a day or more without a computer, tablet or cell phone. You’ll feel liberated.
  • Place your phone at least 15 inches away from you sleep at night. This helps to keep you in a safer zone.
  • Block your day in time zones, where you spend time using technology, but also have blocks of time for organic, genuine interaction with people. Spend more time with friends and family. Limit your phone use, when you are with them. Watch films on a big screen, rather than on your phone.
  • Cultivate a habit of book reading, love the books.
  • Involve in sports, out -door games and in social activities.
  • Consult the health personnel if symptoms persist beyond control.



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