Science Can Tell You If You Have a Smartphone Addiction

September 11th 2015

Corrie Shenigo

“If I could not check my smartphone for a while, I would feel a desire to check it.”

“If I were to run out of credits or hit my monthly data limit, I would panic.”

“If I did not have my smartphone with me I would feel nervous because I would not be able to receive text messages and calls.”

These are a few of the statements researchers at Iowa State University (ISU) asked study participants to consider in an attempt to gage that rush of intense anxiety and dread some of us feel when we realize, "Eeh, gads! I’ve left my smartphone at home." This unpleasant wash of emotion is called nomophobia (no-mobile-phone-phobia), and depending on who you ask, it’s a viable psychological concern.

An article in Business Insider lists the symptoms of nomophobia, which include "feelings of panic or desperation when separated from your smartphone, not being able to focus on conversation or work, and constantly checking phones for notifications." If you recognized yourself in that description, you’re certainly not alone. But are you really sick?

What is nomophobia?

A 2008 UK Post Office study coined the term "nomophobia" after finding that 53 percent of people surveyed admitted to experiencing feelings of anxiety after running out of phone battery or credit, losing their phone, or having no network coverage. More recently a University of Missouri study found that phone separation caused study participants "serious psychological and physiological effects, including poor performance on cognitive tests." Lead author of the University of Missouri study Russell Clayton said that the findings explained the psychological effect of an over-reliance on cell phones. "[i]Phones are capable of becoming an extension of our selves such that when separated, we experience a lessening of 'self' and a negative physiological state," Clayton said.

Add that to the list of well-publicized dangers associated with smartphones—disrupted sleep patterns, physical damage to your spine, eyes, and sperm count, damage to interpersonal relationships, inability to disconnect from work, and the potentially negative impact of what is or isn't socially acceptable in regards to cell phone usage—and, according to some researchers, you’ve got yourself a recipe for impending psychological and physiological disaster.

“Mobile devices can have a dangerous impact on human health,” reads a proposal written by the University of Genoa’s Dr. Nicola Luigi Bragazzi and Dr. Giovanni Del Puente. The two lobbied for the inclusion of nomophobia in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) in 2014. They cited numerous reasons why they considered nomophobia to be an actual disorder, including “technological device[s] can be used in an impulsive way, as a protective shell, or as a means for avoiding social communication.” And the lead researchers from the ISU's 2015 study contend that nomophobia is as viable a “situational phobia” as the fear of flying or the fear of public speaking.

Not everyone is convinced.

Of course, the idea that “nomophobia” is an actual illness comes with its detractors. Despite the growing interest on the effects of our reliance on smartphones, nomophobia is currently unrecognized as an actual phobia by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Techies, addiction specialists, and the Washington Post have all argued against the term, saying that instead of an actual medical condition, “nomophobia” may be nothing more than “the age-old struggle all societies have had in adapting to new technologies.”

[There’s] a lot of fear of technology,” Robert Weiss, senior vice president of clinical development at the Long Beach addiction treatment center Elements Behavioral Health, told the TODAY show. “I think it is all a bunch of crap. Devices help people stay connected and develop bonds in a different way. When you take a device away from them… what they’re jonesing for is their friendships and relationships.”

We're attached to our phones.

Regardless of what camp you're in, phones have become so ingrained in our culture there are now new technology rehabs, PSA campaigns encouraging people to get their heads out of their phones, and scary statistics of Millennials averaging 8-10 hours a day on social media. We use our phones in the shower, during sex, and sitting across the table from a perfectly good conversation partner. Is it too much? Probably. But is it a phobia? We'll see.