Nomophobia – a new disorder?
The term “nomophobia” describes the fear of spending time without your phone; some articles say it is a phobia of losing your mobile phone. Some even say it is an addiction; people are addicted to their iPhone or iPad. However, most authors are not aware of the concepts of addiction or phobia; when you have a closer look, both of them do not apply to a concept of “nomophobia”. Just one example – I just read this article on the web http://www.bizcommunity.com/Article/196/78/107395.html. The author mentions that he “personally thinks it’s getting worse with very little relief in sight with more and more people contracting the illness”. Furthermore, he speaks of nomophobia and is switching later to internet addiction; he is citing only one study from Asia. The author himself is not a psychologist or psychiatrist, therefore the information I found in that article is really confusing for amateurs; nomophobia and internet addiction are different concepts.
What is addiction?
However, let’s talk some real scientific facts – there are hundreds, if not thousands, more or less scientifically sound studies about internet addiction. I could go on and on with the facts, but summarized, there are no precise criteria regarding internet addiction. Therefore, every study has its own criteria. The prevalence rates of internet addiction range from somewhat 1% to up to 80% (!) in early studies. Recent studies found 3-5%, this seems to be a somewhat “real” rate of people having problems with a healthy internet use. However, talking about addiction: what is addiction anyway? Stating some simple criteria like “If checking and rechecking your phone comes as naturally to you as breathing, or if you feel anxious or restless any time your phone is not on or near you, you may have a technology addiction” is highly unprofessional. An addiction is the abuse or misuse of a psychoactive drug, or the repetition of a behavior despite adverse consequences (behavioral addiction only applies to gambling disorder). An addiction has to meet at least some the following criteria (according to the DSM, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual by the American Psychiatric Association) like:
- Tolerance towards the substance (need for an increasing amount of the substance; and a diminished effect with continued use of the same amount of the substance)
- Withdrawal symptoms
- The substance is often taken in larger amounts or over a longer period than was intended
- A persistent desire or unsuccessful efforts to cut down or control substance use
- Important social or recreational activities are given up or reduced because of substance use
- The substance use is continued despite knowledge of having a persistent or recurrent physical or psychological problem that is likely to have been caused or exacerbated by the substance
Nevertheless, some people are suffering from an “over-use” of the internet, they spend too much time online with negative effects on their social and work life. In most cases, people try to escape into virtual realities (to escape problems in real life), they try to enhance their mood (depression) or meet new people online (social anxieties). Furthermore, our studies revealed that a problematic internet use is often connected to a problematic online porn consuming.
Addiction versus high engagement
I do not have any doubts that some people do have problems with a healthy internet use, but the concept of addiction seems not to be the right one here. In most cases, an over-use of the internet is connected to other psychological problems, such as depression or social anxiety. Furthermore, I mentioned in another blog that most studies confuse high engagement with addiction. Being highly engaged in the internet or with your mobile phone or with computer games does NOT automatically mean you’re addicted!
Even among high-level players of World of Warcraft, I only found 3% to be “addicted” (according to scientifically sound criteria), and there are significant differences between highly engaged and addicted players. An addiction factor loaded highly on items tapping interpersonal conflicts, withdrawal symptoms, relapse and reinstatement and behavioral salience criteria for behavioral addiction; an engagement factor tapped items concerning euphoria and cognitive salience criteria. Therefore, addiction criteria like euphoria and cognitive salience seem to be of limited use when it comes to a classification of internet gaming disorder, internet addiction or a problematic use of a mobile phone. Even the new version of the DSM includes internet gaming disorder without mentioning “addiction” and states “more profound research is needed before it is considered for inclusion as a psychological disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) (American Psychiatric Association, 2013).
Nomophobia – what has a phobia to do with it?
The term nomophobia misleads many amateurs to believe it is an actually real disorder. But to be classified as a real disorder, a phobia has to meet at least some of the following criteria:
- A phobia is a marked and persistent fear that is excessive or unreasonable. It is cued by the presence or anticipation of a specific object or situation (e.g., flying, heights, animals, receiving an injection, seeing blood).
- Any exposure to the phobic stimulus almost invariably provokes an immediate anxiety response, which may take the form of a situationally bound or predisposed panic attack.
- The person recognizes that the fear is excessive or unreasonable.
- The phobic situation(s) is avoided or else is endured with intense anxiety or distress.
- The avoidance behavior or distress causes a significant impairment in the person’s daily activities.
About my mobile phone: I have everything connected with it. My social hubs, all my numbers, my favourite apps, my mobile banking account, my work emails, my favorite games… With so much information stored on my phone (confidential emails, contact details, photos): Do I feel uncomfortable when I think about losing my phone? About other people reading all my private stuff? Of course I do, of course I feel somewhat anxious with the thoughts of losing my phone. If you apply this criteria,then I am a nomophobic. But is it a phobia? Very much not so. It is a normal behavior to have fears like this, losing a device with all my personal information stored on it makes me feel uncomfortable.
My conclusion as a Clinical Psychologist
There seem to be a lot of people with problems concerning a healthy use of the internet or their mobile phone. Most studies connect this over-use with disorders like depression or social anxiety. Therefore, the over-use of technology can be an sign of psychological disorders, people try to escape their depression or social anxiety with the help of the internet or video games (if it makes people feel better, it is not necessarily always a bad thing). Nevertheless, in my opinion, the talk about nomophobia is a highly exaggerated media hype about an artificially created disorder.
About the writer: Dr. Mario Lehenbauer-Baum is a Clinical Psychologist and Health Psychologist as well as a certified Industrial-/Organizational Psychologist (certified by the Board of Organizational Psychology – Austrian Psychologist Association), a motivational speaker and coach as well as a researcher concerning positive psychology. He is a passionate gamer and uses new technologies frequently. His research work combines (Clinical) Psychology/Organizational Psychology and new technology (e.g. online-based social skills trainings) as well as the “side effects” of using new technologies, such as being addicted to the internet, games or smart phones. In his coaching and therapy work he focuses on positive psychology to help people live a better life.