Do you have nomophobia? The fear of being phone-less is a real

By Kirstin Buick
11 January 2016

Nomophobia, from “no mobilephone phobia” refers to the “abnormal, irrational fear” of being phone-less – and experts believe it's becoming a reality.

He allows patients to take calls during therapy sessions because he’s realised people’s anxiety levels and ability to concentrate during therapy is hampered by their obsessions with their phones, says Dr Hermann Liebenberg, a psychologist from Centurion.

“I even keep a special charger in my office to put people at ease who experience ‘anxiety’ about how much charge is left in their phone’s battery so that we can have a meaningful session,” he adds. “They experience physical discomfort if the battery indicator shows only one or two bars and then they can’t concentrate.”

There’s even a word for this: nomophobia, from “no mobilephone phobia”. It refers to the “abnormal, irrational fear” of being phone-less; or to have a flat battery or no reception.

Read more: Hooked on technology

Researchers at Iowa University in the US used questionnaires to determine the levels of anxiety people experience when they’re without their cellphone or access to information. It can apparently lead to depression, anxiety, a feeling of isolation and even a poor self-image. New technology can make our lives easier and the world more accessible, but it can also damage your quality of live if you don’t know when to unplug and switch off.

And many people locally already have phones with which they can do almost anything their hearts desire. In 2010 there were 4,8 million smartphones in use by South Africans. This year there are 23,6 million, according to figures released by technology research firm World Wide Worx.

“Hallo, I’m Conor and I’m a nomophobe.” He’d been skeptical about this for a long time but now Conor Wogan can admit it to the world. He’s been running a website,, since last year. He heard the word for the first time from his cousin, Patrick O’Neill, who was a spokesperson for the British mail service. O’Neill had research done about this fear which found among other things that 55 percent of people with cellphones get panicky if they can’t get hold of loved ones for some reason or another. More than half never switch their phones off.

“Sounds like pseudo-psycho crap, I thought,” Wogan wrote in his journal. “Until a few weeks ago when I left my iPhone in a taxi in Dublin.” He didn’t notice that it had slipped out of his trouser pocket. The battery had just one percent of charge and when he tried to call his phone later it was dead. He had to wait several days for an insurance payout before he could get a new phone.

The fear he experienced in that time made him realise just how much he’d come to depend on his cellphone to do his work and run his life.

He decided to ask his cousin for help. “Patrick, I’m nomophobic. I don’t want to live in fear of my little phone. What do I do? Where do I go?”

“I’m afraid there isn’t anywhere to go, Conor,” O’Neill replied. That was the start of their website, which aims to make people aware, in a fun way, that there are others who share their fear.

“If someone has told you to put down your phone in the past week you’re probably suffering from nomophobia,” O’Neill says. “If more than one person has said that you need to put your phone down, you’re definitely suffering from nomophobia. To me, it seems like common sense.”

But what do the experts say?

Read more: Children feel neglected by cell phone addicted parents

She hasn’t yet encountered such a diagnosis, says Larissa Ernst, a psychologist from Cape Town. “And I don’t think it’s very common. It’s a fairly extreme diagnosis. But I do think more and more people are becoming dependent on their phones.

“A formal diagnosis would only apply in extreme cases,” she adds. “For most people their cellphone has become an extension of who they are. It goes everywhere with them and gives them peace of mind that they can immediately get hold of loved ones as well as emergency services should they ever need to. In such cases it would be normal to be worried if you’re without your phone. But it becomes problematic and can technically be defined as a disorder if certain boundaries are crossed, Ernst adds, such as when it starts to affect your life, work and relationships. It’s then unavoidable that it would become a psychological problem at some stage.

With today’s smartphones people expect you to be available 24 hours a day and immediately reply to emails. This can cause a lot of stress. At some stage of the day you should disconnect. To be online at all times can lead to symptoms such as depression, ongoing stress and sleep disturbances, a Swedish study of 1 100 young adults found.

“We’re exchanging our real-world relationships for virtual ones,” writes Sherry Turkle, a professor of social studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

It’s not necessarily always a problem, says John Soderlund, a psychologist from Pietermaritzburg. But exaggerated dependency on electronic communications causes anxiety partly because our brains are designed for real human contact, expressed in facial expressions, changes in tone of voice and non-verbal communication such as touch. “The more we expect of technology the less we expect of each other,” Soderlund explains.

“It would be naive not to acknowledge the existence of nomophobia, even if it’s just a symptom of a problem,” Dr Liebenberg says. “Which is why it’s my opinion that children should be taught from a young age by their parents and educators to keep the use of technology moderate. They should ensure there’s a balance and that it doesn’t create anxiety.

“It’s shocking to see the way people behave these days when they eat out. No one talks to anyone else, especially not younger people; everyone’s laughing to themselves at funny message on their phones, or they’re sending and receiving messages rather than talking to the person opposite them.” But he believes nomophobia should be seen as an “obsession” rather than a “phobia”.

Read more: Social media addiction blamed on brain size

“It’s insulting to the people who have true addictions and true phobias who need profound help that just because they miss something they’re dependent on, that they’re then phobic,” says Robert Weiss, a sex addiction specialist and co-author of the book Closer Together, Further Apart: The Effect Of Technology And The Internet On Parenting, Work And Relationships.

Real, clinical addictions – to things such as gambling and sex – affect only 10-12 percent of the population, Weiss says, and it has been at that level since before the Internet came along.

The warning signs

  • You take your phone with you literally everywhere you go – even when you have a bath or go to the toilet or to bed.
  • You withdraw socially more and more, becoming isolated in terms of face-to-face contact.

  • You’re becoming more and more trapped in the idealised, over-simplified life depicted on social media such as Facebook or Instagram.

  • You have trouble sleeping because you’re over-stimulated by the light of your phone’s screen as well as the effects of your interaction on social media.

  • The line between work and relaxation becomes more and more blurred. It’s so easy to have a quick look at your work emails in the middle of a family dinner.

  • An increase in interpersonal conflict around phone use. For example, parents constantly complaining about a child who’s always on the phone; a wife moaning about her husband who never switches off his phone; or the husband becoming suspicious of his wife who’s always on her phone – and eventually takes sly peeks to see what’s going on.

  • You’re obsessively checking to see if you had any missed calls, Soderlund says.

Tips for cellphone use

  •  Decide on times when you can get along without your phone and makes sure it remains switched off during those times, Ernst advises.

  •  Read a book or magazine immediately before going to sleep instead of checking your emails or catching up on Facebook. In other words, change your bedtime routine.

  • Focus on regular, new, shared experiences with loved ones that don’t involve technology. Have a picnic somewhere you haven’t been before or visit a new fresh produce market.

  • Make time for meaningful conversations around the dining room table. Share the high- and low-points of your individual days, without technology.

  • Remind yourself that what people post on social media isn’t an accurate reflection of their lives but just part of it.

  • Physical exercise and stimulating hobbies have the same effect as online browsing but isn’t as likely to lead to dependency, Soderlund says.

  • Spend the same amount time on face-to-face contact with other people as you would on your phone.

  • Try to have a technology fast once a month – a day in which you don’t use your phone, computer or tablet. “It’s liberating,” Soderlund says.

  • Before you go to sleep, place your phone more than 4 m from your bed so you won’t be tempted to look at it during the night.

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