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May 9, 2018

Is 'no-mobile-phobia' really a thing? Experts are divided.

Daily Briefing

    Around the globe, clinical psychologists and researchers are examining patients who experience anxiety related to their smartphones—but experts are divided on whether conditions such as "no-mobile-phobia" and "low-battery anxiety" are actually distinct medical conditions, Tripp Mickle writes for the Wall Street Journal.

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    The research behind smartphone anxiety

    The research into smartphone anxiety began in earnest with a 2008 study conducted by the United Kingdom's postal service. At the time, the postal service sold prepaid phone cards, and in the study it discovered that 13 million British citizens believed that losing their phone or running out of battery would be one of the most stressful things that could happen to them.

    The post office created the term "nomophobia"—"short for no-mobile-phobia"—to describe the fear someone experiences when they're entirely out of mobile contact. Since then, researchers have identified other types of smartphone anxiety, including "low-battery anxiety," in which sufferers get anxious when their phone battery is low.

    In 2014, public health scientists in Italy lobbied to have nomophobia listed as an official illness in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder (DSM). Michelle Craske, who led that section, said the DSM section on anxiety disorders won't be updated for a few years, but that in her opinion smartphone-related anxieties shouldn't be classified as a phobia. "For me, it would be the same as someone having a phobia of not getting letters in the mail," she said. "I wouldn't say there needs to be a separate classification for that. 

    However, Nancy Cheever, a media psychology specialist, and Larry Rosen, the former chair of the psychology department at California State University-Dominguez Hills (CSUDH), disagree. Cheever and Rosen co-founded a lab at CSU to study smartphone anxiety.

    At her lab, Cheever places participants in a room with blank walls and asks them to set their smartphones down about three feet behind them. She then observes their responses as they receive four successive text messages. Cheever found that self-described heavy phone users had significant increases in anxiety when their phones went off, whereas participants who didn't use their phones as much experienced less of a change. Cheever said, "This is a real problem. Yes, it is a First World problem for sure that we created, but it's still important."

    How clinicians treat smartphone-related anxiety

    Kathy Marshack, a psychologist in Oregon, said she has encountered a steadily increasing number of patients who suffer from smartphone anxiety. Marshack said that she tells her patients to handle the anxiety as they would anxiety from any other source—by relaxing, breathing deeply, and being thoughtful about triggers, which in this case might include leaving home without a charger.

    In another case in Brazil, researchers in 2010 followed a patient who had kept his phone with him continuously since 1995. The patient "was treated with medication and cognitive-behavior psychotherapy" and remained asymptomatic for four years afterward, the researchers wrote (Mickle, Wall Street Journal, 5/4).

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