Go anywhere and you’ll see a lot of people with their head buried in their phone. That intense focus on our devices carries some modern-day tech problems, such as “phubbing”—phone-snubbing someone you’re with. Then there’s the “smombie” phenomenon: Short for smartphone zombie, it means you’re spacing out zombie-like on your phone while walking down the road or, worse, crossing the street.
And then there’s “nomophobia,” or no-mobile-phone phobia, which is the fear of being away from your phone; this one can do real damage to your quality of life and health.
What is nomophobia?
Nomophobia refers to “anxiety about not having access to a mobile phone or mobile phone services,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, which officially added the word in 2019. However, cellphone-related anxiety isn’t new.
In fact, the term was coined in 2008 by the UK Post Office to determine if cell phones were feeding anxiety, according to a 2019 study in the Journal of Family Medicine and Primary Care. At the time, about half of respondents at the time said they felt stress when not in contact with their phones. Fast forward a dozen years later, and it’s only gotten worse.
That said, nomophobia is not considered a diagnosable mental health condition as it’s not listed in the most recent version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the gold standard for psychiatric conditions. (Although in 2014, researchers proposed that nomophobia be included in the DSM, according to a review published in Psychology Research and Behavior Management.)
Nomophobia can hurt your sleep
A 2020 study published in the journal Sleep found that 90 percent of the 327 university students surveyed could be characterized as having moderate to severe nomophobia. Unfortunately, nomophobia was associated with sleep disruption, daytime sleepiness, and poor sleep hygiene habits.
Participants admitted to checking e-mail, texts, or social media after turning off their lights to go to bed, explains Jennifer Peszka, PhD, study co-author and associate professor of psychology at Hendrix College in Conway, Arkansas. For you, that might look like a lot of things: It might be catching up on social media in bed, waking up to check your phone in the middle-of-the-night, or keeping notifications on while you sleep.
The connection with anxiety
Ever get that butterflies-in-the-stomach feeling when you can’t remember where you placed your phone? Or, maybe you have stress dreams that your phone is lost or stolen. “I think you can really view nomophobia as a special form of anxiety,” says Peszka. The reasons behind why someone has nomophobia are variable. “I think different people worry about different things. There are some people who seem to report they’re worried they will miss out on something or that they won’t be able to get help or contact someone if they need to,” she explains.
Signs you may have nomophobia
If you can’t go to sleep without scrolling through your news and social feeds, keep notifications on throughout the night to make sure you don’t miss a thing, or always have your phone planted in your palm, you might suspect you have nomophobia.
There’s also a helpful, more specific questionnaire that was developed by researchers in 2010. It’s a collection of 20 self-rated questions on a scale of one to seven (one being “strongly disagree” and seven being “strongly agree”). Anything over 20 correlates with at least mild nomophobia. Scoring above 100 (out of 140 points) is severe nomophobia. Here’s a sampling of five questions to ask yourself, which is a good starting point to spotting a problem—25 or higher means you may want to take the rest of the test:
- I would feel uncomfortable without constant access to information through my smartphone.
- Being unable to get the news (e.g., happenings, weather, etc.) on my smartphone would make me nervous
- Running out of battery in my smartphone would scare me
- If I did not have a data signal or could not connect to Wi-Fi, then I would constantly check to see if I had a signal or could find a Wi-Fi network
- [If I did not have my smartphone with me] I would be nervous because I would be disconnected from my online identity
How to help yourself
Interestingly, some of the very things you’re told to do to sleep well could trigger stress if you have nomophobia. “Our research suggests that just telling someone to remove their cell phones from their bedrooms might very well induce anxiety enough that their sleep would be disrupted,” says Peszka.
Peszka recommends cognitive-behavioral strategies that can help make parting with your phone a bit easier at night. If you can’t put your phone away or sleep with it out of your room (or even on the other side of your room), then use settings on your phone that limit your use but don’t prohibit it completely.
For instance, set the “do not disturb” function to be on from bedtime to the time you want to wake up. Notifications will be turned off (it won’t glow when you get a text or email) and you won’t be able to receive phone calls, though you can program in emergency contacts who can always get through for peace of mind that you won’t miss something truly important. You might also consider these benefits of taking a social media break.
When to seek help
Do you feel sleepy during the day because you’re up late using your phone trying to scour your news feed? Are you woken up by dings in the middle-of-the-night from friends’ texts or late-night work emails? Then, you’ll want to focus on bettering your sleep, says Peszka. Check these 50 easy ways to sleep better to get started.
Outside of sleep, also consider your quality of life. “Like most anxiety, [nomophobia] becomes an issue when it is out of proportion to the actual threat and your actions to avoid being in a situation without your phone begins to interfere with your functioning,” she explains.
That might look like avoiding airplane travel because you don’t want to have to turn off your phone. Psychotherapy is certainly an option for any issue that’s encroaching on your ability to live a happy, productive life.
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