It was 2008, just after the iPhone was released, and Patrick O'Neill began noticing a curious new phenomenon amongst his friends. When out to dinner, he found he’d often have to request that they put down their phones. Sometimes, it felt like they spent all of their time out just staring at the screen.
O'Neill, who was working as a spokesperson for Britain’s postal service at the time, suggested the post conduct a survey that looked at how people felt about their phones. It concluded that more than half of the U.K. residents feared being without a phone. O'Neill coined a term, “nomophobia” — or “no mobile” phobia.“People going to the loo with their mobile really freaked me,” O'Neill told me.
“If someone has told you to put down your phone in the past week, you are probably suffering from nomophobia,” he said. “If more than one person has said that you need to put your phone down, you are definitely suffering from nomophobia. To me, it seems like common sense.”
In 2008, though, nomophobia was just a clever term to describe the increasing intrusions of technology in our lives. Since then, researchers have begun wondering whether it might really be real. Last year, a pair of Italian researchers made the first case for including nomophobia in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the bible of psychiatry.
“Nomophobia is different from smartphone addiction or other forms of cyberaddiction,” one of them, Nicola Bragazzi at the University of Genoa, told me via e-mail. “Technology is more pervasive than ever. The domain of technopathies is fostering and attracting more and more attention of researchers.”
Bragazzi is currently working with Iowa State University to figure out a reliable way to diagnose nomophobia. He said the signs of nomophobia include always carrying a charger, feeling anxious about the idea of running out of battery or losing service, constantly checking for messages, sleeping with a phone in bed and feeling anxiety about having to communicate face to face.
Earlier this year, the university released a quiz based on recent findings to help figure out how to diagnose it. Participants must answer questions indicating the extent to which they would agree with the statements like “I would feel uncomfortable without constant access to information through my smartphone” or “If I were to run out of credits or hit my monthly data limit.”
Another study by the University of Missouri, published in January, found that the fear of being phoneless can lead to real psychological and physiological effects.
Researchers asked iPhone users to sit at a computer, telling them the purpose of the experiment was to test a new wireless blood pressure cuff. Participants did one word search puzzle with their iPhone in their possession and a second one after their phone had been taken away, told that it was causing “Bluetooth interference” with the blood pressure device. During the second puzzle, researchers found a significant increase in anxiety, heart rate and blood pressure levels, and a significant decrease in puzzle performance.
“iPhones are capable of becoming an extension of our selves such that when separated, we experience a lessening of 'self' and a negative physiological state,” the study’s lead author, Russell Clayton, said at the time.
Bragazzi told me that nomophobia is a condition still in need of much study. But it seems increasingly clear that our attachment to our phones is more than just bad dinner table manners. The fear is real, and so are the consequences.
This story is part of Real Future’s Fear Week.