Nomophobia is a relatively new concept that describes a fear of being without a phone. In fact, the term comes from the phrase “no mobile phone phobia.” Because this fear is still new, much about it remains unknown. Experts do believe, however, that it has links to issues like low self-esteem, extreme introversion or extroversion, and a range of mental disorders.
A specific phobia, as the DSM-5 describes, is an anxiety disorder that causes irrational fear when interacting with a specific situation or object. For something to qualify as a specific phobia, it must have a definite and noticeable effect on a person’s life.
Experts who recognize nomophobia feel that the definition of specific phobia matches the condition's effects.
Like other specific phobias, nomophobia can trigger feelings of fear, distress, and anxiety. These emotions can stem from complete separation from a phone, though they may also occur following a loss of reception or if the phone’s battery dies. Some people experience distress that can progress to a panic attack. These emotional states also tend to cause physical reactions, like muscle tension, sweating, shortness of breath, and increased heart rate.
In addition to the general symptoms of specific phobia, researchers also note that people with nomophobia tend to share certain behaviors. For some individuals, this means using their phones to avoid face-to-face communication or as an excuse to transition to a new situation. Other behaviors include always carrying a charger, owning multiple devices that connect to the internet, and keeping a phone nearby at all times — even while sleeping.
Frequent cell phone use has links to lower grade point averages, as well as higher levels of anxiety that negatively impact life satisfaction.
Nomophobia may also lead to dramatic increases in costs, potentially resulting in debt. Some of these costs stem from the need to purchase larger data plans or newer, pricier phones. Phone usage at night may affect quality of sleep or cause insomnia.
Other conditions often occur alongside nomophobia. Some research indicates that people with panic, social, and anxiety disorders are more likely to develop mobile phone dependency and nomophobia. Agoraphobia may also be comorbid.
One study found that while mobile phone dependency was common among all participants, people who had these disorders experienced more emotional symptoms and greater dependency.
Nomophobia may reinforce certain actions and behaviors that are not inherent to the phobia itself. Notably, people who have nomophobia are more likely to ignore rules about phone usage, often to their detriment.
Prioritizing digital relationships over face-to-face ones is common. Students may use their phones more in class, regardless of the school or teacher’s policy. Illegal use of a phone while driving is also more common among people with nomophobia.
The 2008 study that coined the phrase “nomophobia” found that nearly 53% of mobile phone users in Britain had feelings of anxiety when they did not have access to their phones. A 2010 survey showed that adolescents and young adults were more likely to have nomophobia, with 77% of participating teens showing signs of the condition.
Due to the age of the studies and the relative increase in device use, some experts believe that nomophobia's prevalence is steadily increasing.
Most professionals use the criteria in the DSM-5 to diagnose specific phobias like nomophobia. A person must have an unreasonable, excessive fear of a specific object or situation — in this case, the loss of their phone or access to it — and their anxiety response must occur immediately. They must also go out of their way to avoid their fear or endure it while feeling severe distress.
Additionally, the symptoms must persist for at least six months. Doctors must rule out similar conditions before making a diagnosis. Experts generally agree that specific phobias impact and limit lives, and the evidence certainly suggests nomophobia meets this description.
Several treatment paths are effective in managing nomophobia. However, treating the condition is difficult due to the importance of phones in most people’s lives.
Exposure therapy is a common and often successful choice for treating specific phobias. This may involve turning a phone off or taking it away from its owner for increasing amounts of time. Cognitive-behavioral therapy can help a person develop techniques for managing moments without their phone.
Widely accepted and proven treatments are rare, as nomophobia is a relatively new concept and understanding its scope is difficult. Some doctors see success treating nomophobia with medications, such as antidepressants that treat mood and anxiety disorders or those that prevent and treat seizures, anxiety, and panic disorders.
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