How to handle separation from your mobile phone

No Phone, No Life

Question: I have just read about “nomophobia” (mobile phone separation anxiety) and wonder if the term applies to me. I check my phone as soon as I wake up, and just before I sleep, and get agitated if I forget to bring it with me anywhere. Do I have nomophobia? Is this considered an actual anxiety disorder?

Answer: Nomophobia (short for no-mobile-phone phobia) is a recent concept, coined by a British survey of over 2,000 people that found that half of those surveyed felt anxious when they lost access to their mobile phone. Increasingly, we use our smartphones not just to make calls, but also to connect instantly to social media, get directions and to answer any questions we may have, to play games, and for the most basic tasks (e.g. calendars and alarm clocks). This over-reliance on instant access to all sorts of information and being able to be in constant touch with social contacts can lead to a fear of ‘missing out’ if one doesn’t have the smartphone with him/ her all the time.

More and more people now spend increasing periods of time on their smartphones, including checking their device first thing in the morning and last thing before bed (and sometimes in the middle of the night). People also use their smartphones to de-stress or avoid boredom. Many of us will experience feelings of unease, restlessness or anxiety if we are unable to access our smartphones on demand (e.g. needing to switch off at work/ on airplanes, leaving the device at home, losing cellular signal or battery power). However, while uncomfortable, most of us are still able to perform at work/school and sustain relationships.

Related: Why Social Media Detox Might Improve Your Mental Wellbeing

Nomophobia is not formally classed as an anxiety disorder currently. However, there may be a minority of people who might display extreme behaviours, such as being fearful of losing smartphone access to the point of avoiding such a scenario (e.g. by carrying a charger with them everywhere and constantly checking for cellular signal if lost), and experiencing high levels of anxiety when without smartphone access — that lead to an impairment of daily functioning (work, education, social relationships, losing sleep, etc.). Studies suggest that people who experience such distressing levels of anxiety might possibly have other underlying conditions such as depression or anxiety. If you or someone you know exhibits such extreme nomophobia, it may be worth speaking to your doctor about this.

Some ways to maintain a healthy level of smartphone/device usage include:

  • Ensure one does not check the device at specific times of the day (e.g. not checking the phone until a certain time after waking and at family mealtimes).
  • To switch off the device at night (ideally one hour before bedtime), or keep it away from where one sleeps (and get an actual alarm clock).
  • To schedule regular, fixed activities in one’s routine that allow social or creative pursuits not involving a smartphone (e.g. for every hour of device use, spend an hour in human contact or in solitude).
  • Take a ‘technology fast’ every month (e.g. spend one day without a smartphone, tablet or computer).
Dr Nisha Chandwani
Department Of General Psychiatry
Institute Of Mental Health

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