At first glance, the idea of cell phone separation anxiety can seem flippant. Could people being away from their phones actually cause extreme problems or stress? While it is not officially a clinical diagnosis yet, this is a thing and there is now a name for it: nomophobia (no-mobile phobia). Nomophobia is the term utilized to describe panic and stress people can experience without access to their mobile device. Mental health professionals suggest that this issue is becoming an increasingly common phenomenon, both for teens and adults. Researchers warn that this phobia is affecting most people at some level.
The nature of cell phones has evolved tremendously. Early on cell phones were primarily used to make phone calls. The advancement of cell phones has contributed to mobile devices becoming an extension of ourselves. Cell phones provide a channel and way into a range of interactions, websites, information, content, and services which were previously not so easily accessed.
The sophisticated features of phones have contributed to this increased attachment and dependence. Specifically, the customization of content available through this technology fosters this interaction and sense of dependence. Our phones become such an integrated part of our lives in ways beyond just communicating with people. The infinite resources that are available instantaneously fuels our need to be consistently plugged into our devices.
Researchers propose that the key anxiety provoking aspect of being without a phone may be related to FOMO (Fear of missing out). This is likely to be most common with teens, as so much of their social lives are streamed through their phones. They can experience persistent concern about what they are missing by not being connected and checking posts. For some, this can cause significant anxiety and even symptoms of panic. In some situations, the thought of even being without their phones can cause some to experience such fear and anxiety.
At the least, cell phones are habit forming and at the worst, can be addictive for some. Cell phone usage becomes considered additive if people experience an extreme compulsion to use and check their phones and experience anxiety when the phone is out of reach. By definition, an addictive behaviors cause problems in daily functioning and require individuals having tried to disengage or quit the behavior unsuccessfully. There is a huge continuum of cell phone behaviors and stresses between these two extremes.
Consumer driven organizations study these behaviors in great depth. They research patterns of behaviors in an attempt to increase customer usage and drive new business. This data is used to inform how services and products are marketed. Marketers study the compulsive patterns of cell phone users and find ways to capitalize on these trends.
What is the solution?
Given the wide range uses and needs for these devices in our society, getting rid of our phones is not likely to be considered a viable solution. Experts propose that creating some boundaries on phone usage may reduce the levels of anxiety and stress experienced with separation from our devices. Deliberately identifying a specific time period to separate from our phones can help reduce the distress related to this attachment.
Individuals could benefit from continued awareness of these patterns and trends. Being more mindful and intentional about how and when we utilize our phones can reduce the problems that arise. Fostering positive and healthy ways to use this valued resource is necessary. Parents can help educate their children about such patterns and find ways to create boundaries and foster moderation around cell phone usage. Through training, education, and awareness, we hope to slow down this nomophobia epidemic.
Karen Doll has been a Licensed Psychologist in the Twin Cities for 20 years, working in organizational consulting. She leverages her education in Clinical Psychology with her leadership assessment expertise in her practice. She is an executive coach focusing on helping people maximize their potential.