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Six Ways to Reduce Phone Separation Anxiety

FOMO meet NOMO: the fear of not having a working smartphone, or nomophobia.

Source: pixabay

FOMO has found a new friend. NOMO, short for nomophobia, the fear of not having access to a working smartphone.

Nomophobia is a type of separation anxiety that you experience if you can't use your smartphone whether it's because you lost it, the battery died, or the phone network is inaccessible.

A new study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health examines the growing research around nomophobia, the fear of being without access to a working smartphone.

Nomophobia has been defined as a fear or anxiety of not having a mobile device or not having access to a mobile device when it’s needed. It has also been more broadly described as the fear of feeling disconnected from the digital world.

The term has actually been around for over a decade. It comes from "No Mobile Phone Phobia" (nomophobia) and was coined by the United Kingdom Post Office in 2008 during a study of anxiety, which found that people became worried when they lost their phone or ran out batteries for it or had no network coverage. The study found that over half of men and almost half of women suffered from nomophobia. The most common reason that people felt anxious being without access to their phone is fear of being disconnected from a loved one.

In subsequent studies, people have rated their anxiety of being without their phone as high as “wedding day jitters.” Nomophobia reveals the underlying increasing dependence that people have on their smartphones.

A recent survey found 142 studies that mentioned nomophobia and examined 42 of those studies more closely. Researchers concluded that this area of research is in an early exploratory phase. Most of the studies tried to determine the prevalence of nomophobia.

Nomophobia has four common themes:

  • Fear of not being able to communicate with other people
  • Fear of not feeling connected to others
  • Fear of not being able to have immediate access to information
  • Fear of not having the peace of mind or convenience of a smartphone

Researchers increasingly find that people view smartphones as an extension of themselves, including their identity and even their body.

As in any anxiety disorder, it may be more helpful to think about whether the anxiety is so severe that it disrupts your everyday function or duties, such as your job or if family and friends notice the issue. Do you feel like your dinner with friends gets ruined because your phone battery died? Did you miss an important work meeting because you waited to charge your phone instead of getting to the meeting on time?

Nomophobia in part is rooted in the reality that the phone is a very useful source of immediate access to communication and information. It is highly effective for those tasks and there are often professional and personal obligations that require being available by phone for work or for family. But the problem arises if there are no boundaries around one's use of the phone and internal and external social pressures to be connected and communicating through it, then this can lead to excess worry if the phone is not available.

Nomophobia is also likely worsened by the pressures that many people expect others to be available on the phone or email constantly or posting regularly on social media. These kinds of expectations of being digitally connected all the time, combined with the fact that smartphone apps are designed to be highly addictive in order to increase user engagement, is a powerful formula for driving an emotional and psychological dependence on the smartphone.

It can be important to take at least a few minutes away from your phone in order to realize all is not lost if your phone battery goes to zero. Setting aside specific professional and personal obligations that require phone access, t's healthy to set reasonable boundaries around your own and other people's expectations for how readily available and connected you are to your phone.

How might you put this into practice and reduce your anxiety about not having a working smartphone? Here are some creative ways to combat nomophobia.

  1. Write a letter instead of texting. One of the deep fears underlying the fear of not having a working smartphone is losing connection with someone. Before we had smartphones, we had other ways of connecting with people-- writing letters or a postcard!
  2. Try a few minutes of deep breathing or meditation in the morning instead of checking social media. We often go to browse our phones by default, but by choosing a different non-phone activity, like a deep breathing or a simple focused meditation, you can decrease your attachment to your phone. It's also just a nicer way to start the day in a stress-free way.
  3. Give yourself assignments of longer and longer periods of time being away from your phone. First, pick a time you normally check social media or are on your phone surfing the web. Instead, read a magazine or book or draw a picture for one to two minutes instead of being on your phone. Over the next few weeks, increase this period to five minutes and then 10 minutes a day and so on. Over time, more intentional time away from your smartphone will decrease your dependence on it and reduce your fears of being without your smartphone.
  4. Let your battery drain to zero — within reasonable, safe circumstances. One tried and true method for many anxiety disorders, particularly phobias, is exposure therapy. Afraid of a dead phone battery? Try sitting with a drained phone battery while you're at home. Sitting without access to your phone while it charges for increasing periods of time will show you that you will still survive without it.
  5. Don't jump to using your phone to look up every detail right away. If you and your friends can't remember the name of that actor or movie at dinner and instinctively reach for your phone to look it up, perhaps wait, enjoy dinner, and give everyone a chance to think of it later. Chances are some interesting conversations will be spurred by not answering the question right away and, in the meantime, someone might actually have fun remembering it without relying on a smartphone.
  6. Schedule more time with family and friends in person. Another method is to find ways to connect directly to people unrelated to texting or emailing. Instead, try scheduling more time in person with friends and family. In feeling more separate and independent from your phone, you can reduce the worries of being without a smartphone — and perhaps even discover a sense of relief or joy from not being tied to it all the time.

Wondering if you have nomophobia?

A self-reported questionnaire called the Nomophobia Questionnaire (NMP-Q) was developed in 2015 in assess levels of nomophobia.

Here are the 20 items in the NMP-Q:

  1. I would feel uncomfortable without constant access to information through my smartphone.
  2. I would be annoyed if I could not look information up on my smartphone when I wanted to do so.
  3. Being unable to get the news (e.g., happenings, weather, etc.) on my smartphone would make me nervous.
  4. I would be annoyed if I could not use my smartphone and/or its capabilities when I wanted to do so.
  5. Running out of battery in my smartphone would scare me.
  6. If I were to run out of credits or hit my monthly data limit, I would panic.
  7. If I did not have a data signal or could not connect to Wi-Fi, then I would constantly check to see if I had a signal or could find a Wi-Fi network.
  8. If I could not use my smartphone, I would be afraid of getting stranded somewhere.
  9. If I could not check my smartphone for a while, I would feel a desire to check it.
  10. If I did not have my smartphone with me, I would feel anxious because I could not instantly communicate with my family and/or friends.
  11. I would be worried because my family and/or friends could not reach me.
  12. I would feel nervous because I would not be able to receive text messages and calls.
  13. I would be anxious because I could not keep in touch with my family and/or friends.
  14. I would be nervous because I could not know if someone had tried to get a hold of me.
  15. I would feel anxious because my constant connection to my family and friends would be broken.
  16. I would be nervous because I would be disconnected from my online identity.
  17. I would be uncomfortable because I could not stay up-to-date with social media and online networks.
  18. I would feel awkward because I could not check my notifications for updates from my connections and online networks.
  19. I would feel anxious because I could not check my email messages.
  20. I would feel weird because I would not know what to do.

Each item is rated a score from 1 for Strongly Disagree to 7 for Strongly Agree and the final score sums up all twenty ratings. Total scores range from 20 to 140 — the higher the score, the more severe the symptoms.

Score ratings are as follows:

  • 20 for no nomophobia
  • 20 to 60 is mild
  • 60 to 100 is moderate
  • Greater than or equal to 100 indicate severe nomophobia.

Marlynn Wei, MD © 2019

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