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How Smartphones Created a New Anxiety Disorder

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Do you remember the days before cell phones?  Not just the days before the internet was at the tip of our finger, anywhere, anytime; but before smartphones and texting existed.  Remember when we would leave our house, commute, work, shop, and even travel without the safety net of a cell phone to keep in touch?  Did leaving your house without your old school phone make you panic?  Back then, probably not–but since the invention of smartphones, being away from your device is breeding a whole new form of panic disorder.  It’s called nomophobia, and you may have it.

               Nomophobia is a condition which is composed of the acronym “NO Mobile Phone PhoBIA,” and it’s now included in the DSM- 5th Edition (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders).  Mental health professionals use the DSM-5 to diagnose and codify psychological disorders and conditions, so its inclusion in this manual means that it’s time to sit up and take notice of the very real effects our digital footprint is having on our psyches.

               Nomophobia was coined in 2008.  Though the term includes the word phobia, it’s really an anxiety disorder which the DSM defines as a “phobia for particular/specific things.”  However, it pertains to the panic that comes from being out of touch with your phone, but its symptoms can overlap with other disorders including social anxiety, phone addiction, or regular anxiety.

How Anxious are You When You’re Away from Your Phone?     

               Would you be shocked to know that many people experience the same level of anxiety when their phone is not physically at hand, battery is low or out of phone credit, or aren’t getting any cell phone service that is equal to pre-wedding day jitters?

               It’s true.  Though some of our reasons for keeping our phones working and nearby are to keep in touch with a family member, this seemingly innocent reason is more than likely predisposing you to feeling apprehensive when the device isn’t readily accessible.  In one study of 547 male students, 23% of students fit the conditions to be labeled as nomophobic, and almost three-quarters of the remaining students were at risk for developing nomophobia.

               Half of the students who were already experiencing nomophobia never turned their phones completely off.  From the same study as above, 77% of the students picked up their phone to check it 35 or more times daily.

               Mobile phone dependence also impacts so-called “healthy” individuals who haven’t been labeled as nomophobic:  46% of people in a study from Brazil did not believe they would feel the same without their phones.  Individuals who are already dealing with anxiety disorders are the most vulnerable to developing dependence on their phones, with 44% of anxiety-sufferers gaining a sense of security from having their phones in their pocket.

Symptoms of Nomophobia

               Some of these symptoms seem hard to believe, but how well would you do if your device was removed?

               Signs of nomophobia include agitation, perspiration, anxiety, disorientation, fast heart beat, changes in breathing patterns, and even trembling.

What the Most Recent Study Tells Us

               This month, researchers have learned that the risk of developing nomophobia is correlated to how much time is spent on the phone.  Less obvious to us is that even passive scrolling on social media may not cause stress at the time, but young adults using social media passively can expect to suffer an increase in stress up to six months later.

               The researchers also note that many young people are using smart phones to relieve anxiety which is already present.  Smartphone use can be an impulsive and compulsive behavior which gives temporary relief.  However, in the long term, this outlet leads to more anxiety in a viscous cycle.

               Studies from 2011, 2012, and 2015 have shown that using your smartphone excessively can cause the usual headache, fatigue, auditory and visual problems we’d expect—but it can also cause disruption in concentration, loss of memory, weaken brain tissue, and even cause changes in gene regulation.

               The emotional effects of using a smartphone excessively has been shown to dysregulate emotion, cause rumination (or dwelling on things), and trigger deficits in attention.

How Much is Excessive?

               In this year’s most recent study of 495 adults aged 18-24, most participants used their smartphone for 4-7 hours per day, with their time primarily spent engaging on social media platforms, followed by games, music, news, blogs, and e-mails.

               I think we could all use a reality check on how often we check our phones, myself included.  While there isn’t any evidence or set number of hours that is deemed excessive or will definitely lead you to a diagnosis of nomophobia, the more you use it, the higher the risk.  I would have liked to see another variant included in the smartphone studies which determined if it’s just time spent “online” on the phone that causes anxiety, or if using your phone for offline tasks like calendars, timers, pictures, note taking, etc. would still cause dependence.

What Can I Do?

               From the data of this study, most of the time spent on the phone was on social media, so cutting back on social media may be a helpful start.

               If you feel that your smartphone usage is heading into obsessive behavior, or if you simply feel worse after being engaged with your phone,  set aside a small portion of your day to restrict looking at it.  You can gradually build up over time into longer periods of time without checking-in. 

If, however, you start having symptoms of anxiety or feel like you can’t do without it, please don’t hesitate to reach out to a mental health professional who can help you find working strategies to lessen your symptoms.               

Smartphone dependence and addiction are real and as toxic as any other addiction.  Let’s all encourage each other to put the smart back in smartphone.

References

Gonçalves, Soraia, et al. “Nomophobia and Lifestyle: Smartphone Use and Its Relationship to Psychopathologies.” Computers in Human Behavior Reports, no. August-December 2020, doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chbr.2020.100025.

Bhattacharya, Sudip et al. “NOMOPHOBIA: NO MObile PHone PhoBIA.” Journal of family medicine and primary care vol. 8,4 (2019): 1297-1300. doi:10.4103/jfmpc.jfmpc_71_19

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