Do you ever experience anxiety or stress when you are separated from your cell phone? Are you afraid that you might miss something if you don’t compulsively check it? Do you find the seductive pull of social media hard to resist? If you answered yes to these questions, then you might have “nomophobia” (an abbreviation for “no-mobile-phone phobia”), a term coined by a British research organization in 2010 to describe the fear of losing or not having access to one’s mobile phone.
A 2008 British study of over 2000 people found that about 66% percent of men and women suffer from nomophobia, and an additional 9% feel stressed when their mobile phones are off. 41% of people say they have more than one phone.
The numbers from similar studies in the U.S. in the past 5 years are no better:
- 65% of people sleep with or next to their smartphones.
- 34% admitted to answering their cell phone during intimacy with their partner.
- More than half of adults never switch off their phones.
- One in three people admitted they’d rather give up sex than their smartphones.
- The average person checks their cell phone 150 times a day.
Dangerous digital pacifiers
A study from the University of Missouri published in January 2015 found that, for many people, being apart from their phone can have significant psychological and physiological effects, including a loss of identity. Often associated with separation anxiety, nomophobia comes with a set of identifiable symptoms: increased heart rate and blood pressure, shortness of breath, anxiety, trembling, dizziness, depression, discomfort, fear, and panic.
According to Professor Gail Kinman of the University of Bedfordshire in the UK, the consequences of nomophobia resemble those of other addictions: “Nomophobia can drive individuals to become preoccupied with their phone and turn to it if they are depressed, anxious, and lonely. This is especially true for individuals with pre-existing anxiety, who may equate their phones with a comfort blanket.” The only difference between nomophobia and other addictions is that digital addiction is socially accepted, normalized, and even subtly rewarded.
Nomophobia not only affects our minds but also our relationships with ourselves and others. Researchers are calling this pattern technoference, or the potential interference smartphones and other technologies can have in our face-to-face social interactions.
We are often more connected to our phones than to each other face-to-face, yet our need for positive in-person social connections is a deeply wired and universal impulse. In The Power of Off: The Mindful Way to Stay Sane in a Virtual World, psychotherapist Nancy Colier describes the detrimental impact of our imbalanced use of technology on our sense of connectedness:
Without open spaces and downtime, the nervous system never shuts down — it’s in constant fight-or-flight mode. We’re wired and tired all the time. Even computers reboot, but we’re not doing it. It’s connections to other human beings — real-life connections, not digital ones — that nourish us and make us feel like we count. Our presence, our full attention is the most important thing we can give each other. Digital communications don’t result in deeper connections, in feeling loved and supported.
Have you been “phubbed” lately?
Couples who come to therapy typically complain about feeling disconnected and unimportant to each other. Often they may blame their partner’s cell phone habits and describe feeling repeatedly “phubbed.” Phubbing, a term coined in 2012, is the practice of snubbing others in favor of our mobile phones and can be a symptom of nomophobia. We have likely all experienced phubbing, on either side of a smartphone – as victim or perpetrator!
According to recent research, when we are phubbed by a partner or close friend, four fundamental needs are threatened—the need for belonging, self-esteem, meaningful existence, and control— because we feel excluded and ignored. Spouses who phub each other regularly are also more likely to experience depression, increased conflict over technology use, and lower marital satisfaction.
Finding a better digital balance
While nomophobia and phubbing present genuine risks to our personal and collective wellbeing, the challenge is to use and enjoy the virtual world in smart ways and to stay focused on strengthening our relationships in the real world.
Here are a few ways to create better phone boundaries and healthier relationships with your devices and your loved ones:
- Examine your habits and assess how much digital use you really need for work, friendship, navigation, safety, etc.
- Start small: schedule a time every day to turn off your cellphone for face-to-face conversations or quiet time
- Try a technology fast for one day every month
- Experiment with a daily mindfulness practice (check out apps like Calm and Headspace) to be more present to the moment (rather than your phone)
- Place your phone in another room or at least 15 feet away from you at night and limit your use before bedtime
- Practice being fully present without distractions, listening attentively, and making eye contact with friends and family
- Seek out a counselor if you want support to address nomophobia and/or to improve your relational skills
- Consider a couples workshop to create more passion in your relationship
A challenge for the New Year
January is a good time to hit reset, break old patterns, and bring fresh intention and awareness to our daily lives. As you examine your digital habits, explore what deeper needs you might be trying to satisfy through those countless hours on your devices. Consider what really matters to you and what you value most. What truly nourishes your mind, body, heart, and soul? How much energy and attention are you devoting to the people and things you love–not just to your online presence or social media?
2020 may be the time to end your love affair with your smartphone so that you can embrace the passionate life that awaits you offline.