Are You a Nomophobe?

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Check out the signs and symptoms of digital addiction, and think about how you relate to your digital devices.

Okay, just when I thought I’d heard it all, they sprung a new one on me! Someone has coined the term “nomophobia” to describe an all-too-familiar condition affecting those of us who are too deeply immersed in the instant communication age to separate ourselves from our handheld devices. Derived from “no mobile phone” immediately accessible, nomophobia refers to the anxiety some folks feel when separated for any period of time from their cellular phone (some extend the term to include tablets, digital readers, and other gaming or networking contraptions). And recently, a Miami, Florida-based television station aired a program on the topic with input from a local child and family psychologist who studies the phenomenon and keeps track of nationwide surveys on the topic. Those surveys indicate that nomophobia is a real and relatively prevalent phenomenon.

A communications company that has conducted mobile device usage surveys for several years believes that nomophobia is not only prevalent, but also on the rise. Their most recent survey indicates that approximately 66 percent of cell phone users report experiencing fear of being without their smartphones (up from 54 percent four years ago), and check them 34 times per day on average. And up to 75 percent of users report taking their cell phones into the bathroom with them. Diehard nomophobes justify their digital addiction by insisting that they actually stay more engaged with friends and family than would otherwise be true. But researchers question whether the nature and quality of that engagement can really replace good old fashioned face time. And they point to certain addiction-like behaviors as signs that a person might have a more intense (albeit dysfunctional) relationship with their phone than they do with their close personal friends and family members. Some of the signs include: always wanting the phone close to your person; worrying about losing the phone, even when it’s in a safe place; never turning it off, to avoid missing message alerts; and constant checking. These behaviors are not all that uncommon. But when they cluster together, occur frequently, and interfere with other aspects of daily living, it can be a real problem.

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Smart mobile devices do certainly seem to be addicting. And some folks seem to be more deeply into the throes of such an addiction than others. I really took notice of this on a couple of occasions recently. On the first occasion, I was with some family and friends at a football party. There we all were, sitting and standing around the big screen television, and with the broadcasters’ voices in the background, I observed everyone quite busy — not actually watching much of the game — and not talking to one another — but rather, reading and sending text messages, checking emails, posting on Facebook, and playing Words with Friends. And the most hilarious thing I remember happening was that, as we were all leaving, everyone commented on how much fun they’d had “being together” and how they just couldn’t wait to do it again! On the other occasion, I was actually in my own home on Christmas day with my younger son (who’d just come home from college), his older brother, his wife and children, and my wife and father-in-law. We had just finished opening presents when I noticed it had suddenly become very quiet. As I looked up, I saw every member of the family with some device in their hand, including the grandchildren! Of course, everyone had a good reason: Grandma wanted to send out some cute little photos she’d just snapped of the grandchildren ripping the wrappings of their toys; my son wanted to text his girlfriend “Merry Christmas” (even though he’d done so just and hour before); and the kids wanted to play that Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer video on their mom’s iPad just one more time. But for the next hour or so it seemed that the dance of true physical interaction between us had taken a back seat to the deep embrace everyone seemed to be locked into with their digital partners. Nomophobia had even managed to infiltrate Christmas!

Casino design engineers have long known how addictive various electronic contraptions can be. And they’ve poured millions of research dollars into engineering slot machines that say things, do things, make certain noises, and play musical sounds in ways that keep people pulling levers and pressing buttons well beyond the point where it would make the most sense to simply walk away. So sometimes I wonder if the the inventors of these mobile devices did some similar research to make their products as addictive as slot machines. I do know of at least one case where a woman just can’t wait to get another cell phone call, just to hear the specialized ringtone she’s so fond of chime out once again (she’s even called herself from another phone just to hear it ring). And of course, there’s the addictive nature of the ‘payoff’ of instant gratification for whatever it is you crave: the news, a brief friendly chat, an amusing picture, or the weather forecast.

My wife had a sort of nomophobic epiphany a few days ago. She’d woken up in the middle of the night to notice that the screen of her iPhone was glowing brightly on the nightstand. The cute little ditty that plays when one of your online game play partners has made a move must have gone off, she thought, interrupting her sleep. She checked, and sure enough there was the message: “your move,” it said. She thought for a minute and was deeply tempted. Her friend had just scored a 35-point word. This was the closest she’d come in weeks to possibly losing a game. She looked at the clock one more time. 2:35 AM it said on the LED display. She grasped the phone again, took a look at the word board, then glanced one more time at the clock. Then, slipping the soon to be darkened screen under the bed, made the decision to roll over and lay her digital addiction to rest for the night.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Pat Orner Oliver on .

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