Smartphone separation anxiety is real, and it even has a scientific name: nomophobia. First described in 2012 (and added to the dictionary in 2016), nomophobia is defined as “the feelings of discomfort or anxiety caused by the nonavailability of a mobile device enabling habitual virtual communication.”
Now, a new study compares how people with high and low levels of nomophobia tend to perceive and value their smartphones—and provides some insight into the type of person who’s most at risk of an unhealthy relationship with their device. The research was published in Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking.
For their new study, scientists surveyed 201 university students in South Korea, ages 18 to 37, and asked them how strongly they agreed or disagreed with statements about positive memories, their daily smartphone use, and their behaviors and emotions in relation to their phones.
They found that it’s common for people to perceive smartphones as part of their “extended selves” and get attached to the devices, “especially when they use smartphones as a tool for storing, sharing, and accessing personal memories that reflect their identities,” says Ki Joon Kim, assistant professor of media and communication at the City University of Hong Kong.
These feelings heighten people’s tendencies for “phone proximity-seeking” (i.e. the need to be near your cell at all times) and ultimately leads to nomophobia, the authors concluded. “Thus, those who use their smartphones particularly for such purposes are more likely to be at risk for developing smartphone separation anxiety,” says Kim.
The study also showed that users with different levels of nomophobia perceive their smartphones differently, as well. Many of the words people used when describing the “meaning” of their smartphones were the same across the board, but some were unique to people with high versus low nomophobic tendencies: The former used words like “hurt,” “alone,” and “want,” while the latter used more benign words like “game,” “comfortable,” “SMS,” and “efficient.”
People with high levels of nomophobia also frequently reported having phone-induced wrist and neck pain, compared to people with low levels, and were more likely to report being distracted from work and studies. “These findings suggest that the problematic use of smartphones can surely induce negative effects not only on users’ physical conditions but also on the overall quality of their everyday lives,” says Kim.
Of course, smartphone-related anxiety is nothing new. One previous study has even shown that being away from our precious devices can lead to an increase in heart rate and blood pressure. This study supports these ideas, says Kim, and confirms that nomophobia “is a real thing.”
(Although it’s not formally included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the go-to reference for psychologists and psychiatrists, research does suggest that nomophobia “may serve as an indicator of a social disorder or phobia” for certain individuals who rely on virtual communication, the authors wrote in their paper.)
It’s almost certain that nomophobia will become more rampant, Kim adds, since mobile technology continues to become more invasive, more interactive, and more accessible. It’s also becoming increasingly personalized and customizable, with apps and programs that automatically classify images and generate collages and animations, “thereby curating the user’s daily life and special memories,” the authors wrote in their paper. While we can’t stop technology from evolving, they say, we can at least try to stop ourselves from using our smartphones 24/7 and from becoming overly dependent on them as extensions of ourselves.
Being informed about the negative effect of nomophobia may be the first step in overcoming fear of missing out (FOMO) and disconnection, he says, “and giving ourselves a chance to turn off our smartphones and be without them for a certain period of time would be the next step.”
In a press release, Brenda Weiderhold, the journal’s editor-in-chief, agrees that nomophobia, FOMO, and fear of being offline (FoBO) are all legitimate anxieties—and as such, they may be treated similarly to other traditional phobias. “Exposure therapies, in this case turning off technology periodically, can teach individuals to reduce anxiety and become comfortable with periods of disconnectedness,” she says.