Nomophobia: Why Some Of Us Actually Have A Phobia Of Being Without A Phone

by Dan Scotti

It happens far too often: I reach into my pocket for my phone, and when I try to turn it on, I remember that it's been dead for hours.

Everyone has felt anxiety over being phone-less.

Gone are the days when mobile phones served solely as lifelines in emergency situations or platforms for the occasional, monochrome game of Snake. In today’s day and age, phones are more than that -- they’re windows to the rest of the world, and, for many of us, our primary means of interaction.

So when it’s the middle of the day and your low-battery notification pops up on your screen, it’s only natural to feel a bit apprehensive about going through the rest of your day without a charged phone. We’ll do just about anything just to make sure that doesn’t happen. We’ll dim our backlights to conserve battery. We’ll close out of apps. We’ll buy cases with chargers built into them.

And before a long night out, there’s always at least one person ripping shots from the bathroom because it has the only available outlet.

As crazy as it may seem, the fear of being without a phone is real. (Though I’m not sure this is so much of a fear of being without our phones as much as it’s a total dependency on them.)

According to Piercarlo Valdesolo, a professor at Claremont McKenna College, in an article for Scientific American, there is now a name for this condition. And that's "nomophobia" -- the scientific term for “no-mobile-phone-phobia.”

Nomophobia hinges on two main premises. First, it stems from “the feelings of anxiety or distress that some people experience when not having their phone.”

Essentially, this is that uncomfortable feeling that consumes you when your phone hits the 15% mark. You can already see the writing on the wall.

A second important aspect of nomophobia revolves around “the degree to which we depend on phones to complete basic tasks and to fulfill important needs such as learning, safety and staying connected to information and to others.”

And, in my opinion, this idea is especially intriguing.

As Valdesolo explains, the dependency has deeper, more significant psychological consequences than the fear of missing out on Twitter or failing to receive a text:

Research on transactive memory finds that when we have reliable external sources of information about particular topics at our disposal, then this reduces our motivation and ability to acquire and retain knowledge about that particular topic.

In other words, when we have a dependable source of information – like our phones – available to us, over time we’ll begin to lose motivation to learn things for ourselves.

For example, the more we rely on CNN's Twitter page and Facebook's trending topics for our news, the less likely we are to pick up a newspaper, hit a library or learn things outside of what's delivered on our screens.

Some people might argue that phones make news and information more convenient. But in the grand scheme of things, they might be more limiting than anything else.

In order to be “diagnosed” (and I use that term lightly) with nomophobia, you have to take a 20-question test that distinguishes between levels of severity. That way, you can figure out to what degree you have nomophobia.

However, there is certainly a large amount of controversy over whether or not nomophobia is a real disorder, or just a result of bad habits.

In an article for The Washington Post, Brian Fung urges us not to confuse nomophobia for an actual medical addiction to smartphones, regardless of how controlling they may appear to be.

“Maybe the greatest risk of all may lie in deciding that nomophobia represents an actual medical condition,” Fung writes.

To many critics, nomophobia is far from a new concept. It's not much different from any of our ancestors’ struggle to adapt to new technology.

And while new, exciting technology may create crazes shortly after their development, calling them "addictions" might distract people from more serious addictions.

Ultimately, it’s impossible to deny we’ve become dependent on our smartphones -- or even to say that the majority of us don’t have some type of fear about being without them .

But are "addiction" and "phobia" the right words to use?

As Fung says, “physical dependence can lead to craving the drug to relieve the withdrawal symptoms,” and that’s hardly something anyone’s ever had to deal with after being without their phone for a few days.

Then again, I’ve never been without my phone for more than a day or two, at most.

Huh. That has me thinking...