You step outside your home without your phone and are seized by a sudden fear. Or you notice that your battery is low when out and about and decide to get home as quickly as possible. Do you recognize these anxieties? According to researchers from universities in Hong Kong and Seoul, they may be symptoms of something called “nomophobia”. That is, no-mobile-phobia: the fear of being separated from your smartphone.
The study, led by Ki Joon Kim from the City University of Hong Kong alongside academics from Sungkyunkwam University, was published recently in Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking. The psychological relationship we have with our phones has been researched in the past, but previous research focused on the well-known “fear of missing out”, suggesting that we are afraid of losing our phone because it facilitates our social life. According to this theory, phone-related fears can be categorised under general social anxiety. But Kim’s paper discusses reasons for nomophobia that go beyond the social.
Kim’s paper suggests that, far from simply being afraid of the impact on their social lives, smartphone users frequently also experience a real attachment to their devices which is not merely practical. Rather than fearing that they will be unable to communicate with friends and family, users are often simply uncomfortable with being separated from their phones. After all, phones contain not only the possibility of social contact, but older messages, photos, videos and so on. In other words, they contain a part of our memories, and we do not want to be separated from this nostalgia.
As a solution, Brenda K. Wiederhold, the editor of Cyberpsychology, suggests a digital detox, a form of exposure therapy which separates patients from their phones in order to accustom them to that separation. But the presence of the phobia could imply a deeper problem: are we too reliant upon our phones to structure our social and mental lives? Is nomophobia a disease of the future? Do we need a detox on a larger scale? These are questions we will have to ask ourselves as we move into the future.