Nomophobia, the Irrational Fear of Being Without a Cell Phone

Nomophobia refers to the anxiety generated by being without a mobile phone. We'll review what scientists know about it.
Nomophobia, the Irrational Fear of Being Without a Cell Phone

Last update: 05 February, 2023

The term nomophobia is used to describe a series of reactions and feelings associated with the fear of being without a cell phone. It comes from the phrase no mobile phone phobia and was first used in 2008 by the UK Post Office. It’s estimated that more than 50% of the world population that uses cell phones has nomophobia or is at risk of developing it.

The actual prevalence varies according to age, sex, social status, type of cell phone, and other variables. Even so, it’s a real problem that’s related to a deterioration in the well-being of those affected. Here’s a review of what the experts know about nomophobia and why you should put a limit on how much attention you pay to your devices.

The characteristics of nomophobia

Nomophobia isn’t a recognized disorder by psychiatric diagnostic manuals. In fact, and as experts point out, the word phobia in the term is itself a misnomer. It was described at the time based on the criteria of “phobias of particular or specific things” that were included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in its fourth edition (DSM-IV, current for 2008).

The word is used to refer to the symptoms of discomfort, nervousness, or anxiety triggered by not being connected to a mobile phone. The term connected is very general, referring to a variety of situations: Not finding the device, not having it nearby, turning it off, and not constantly checking it. It’s considered a disorder of the 21st century that derives from the massification of information and communication technologies.

Nomophobia is closely related to other phenomena associated with the use of electronic devices. For example, FOMO syndrome (fear of missing out on something on social networks), addiction to new technologies, cell phone addiction, and others. In fact, sometimes all of these terms are used synonymously with nomophobia, and vice versa. Researchers suggest four defining characteristics of nomophobia:

  1. Fear or nervousness about not being able to communicate with other people
  2. Fear of not being able to connect
  3. Fear of not being able to have immediate access to information
  4. Fear of giving up the comfort offered by mobile devices

Although it can affect anyone who uses mobile devices, it’s a problem that persists in the population between 12 and 18 years of age. The behaviors and reactions associated with it are summarized in the following list:

  • The inability to turn off the cell phone
  • The inability to move away from the device for a long period of time
  • Compulsively unlocking the screen for notifications
  • Charging the mobile battery even when it doesn’t objectively require it
  • Repeatedly checking if you have the device with you
  • The alteration of interpersonal relationships due to the use of mobile phones
  • Social isolation
  • The development of mood disorders, such as stress, anxiety, and depression
  • Altered sleep patterns due to device use

These are just some of the hallmarks of nomophobia. Most people, to a lesser or greater extent, develop one or more of these symptoms. When their frequency and intensity reach pathological limits, then we can talk about nomophobia.

The causes of nomophobia

Nomophobia affects young people.
People with nomophobia can manifest other anxiety disorders throughout their lives.

The condition isn’t technically a phobia. Certainly, and although it shares some common features, phobias are characterized by the prevailing need to get away from the object that catalyzes the symptoms. More strictly, it fits better with the spectrum of other anxiety disorders. We can highlight three variables that affect its manifestation:

  • The average use of the mobile device throughout the day: It’s estimated that more than 98% of the young population uses the mobile between 1 and 4 hours throughout the day. Many far exceed this use, so mobile devices have become established among the general population, and particularly among youth, as part of our daily routine.
  • The multiple utilities related to its use: Mobile phones haven’t been used exclusively for calling and sending messages for years. Studying, playing video games, tracking your own sports statistics, making investments, assessing your financial situation, taking photos, sharing personal information, and much more are all part of actual cell phone use today.
  • The massification of technology: Cell phones have gone from being a daily complement to becoming a main tool. Many of the aspects of your daily life depend strictly on constant connection. Therefore, without a cell phone, you couldn’t function at work, school, in society, or at home as you do today.

The conjunction of these variables leads a person to develop the reactions that make up nomophobia. An introverted personality, the maladjustment of the practice of attachment, the presence of anxiety or depressive disorders, and others also mediate its manifestation.

The consequences of the fear of being without a cell phone

A woman lying in bed looking at her cell phone during the night.
The excessive use of mobile devices can affect almost any aspect of daily life.

The pathological dependence on cell phones device triggers a series of consequences for the well-being of the affected person and those around them. For example, a study published in Heliyon in 2018 associated traits of nomophobia with a higher chance of developing personality disorders. Specifically, of developing obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

Indeed, OCD and nomophobia have many things in common; so this can be a catalyst in certain contexts for its development. It’s also known to negatively interfere with the subjective appraisal of happiness, self-esteem, and loneliness. This is due to the deterioration of interpersonal relationships and the commitment to relate predominantly within a virtual environment.

Excessive attention to mobile devices can negatively impact work and study habits, which translates into a significant reduction in performance. It has also been related to anger, irritability, emotional instability, anguish, and aggressiveness. Recently, a study published in Nature and Science of Sleep in 2021 associated it with sleep disorders, such as insomnia.

All this allows us to gauge that the scope of nomophobia is very large, as it’s related to a deterioration in the general well-being of those who suffer from it. It’s by no means an innocuous condition, and due to the dynamics of today’s society, it’s a problem with high social acceptance. Likewise, those affected are reluctant to acknowledge or seek help.

What can you do about it?

As it’s not an officially recognized diagnosis, there’s no standardized therapy to deal with nomophobia. Despite this, the psychological approach is considered the first mechanism of action in the most serious cases. For example, cognitive behavioral therapy or exposure therapy can make great strides for those with an irrational fear of being without a cell phone.

The specialist may consider the use of anxiety medications. Changes in life habits are very important, among which participating in social activities and exercising are essential. Objectively assessing one’s true behavior regarding cell phone use can help to put a stop to nomophobia when they’re still able to control the situation on their own.

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