Nomophobia: What Is It and How to Identify Symptoms

August 27, 2021

Adults over the age of 45 likely remember the days before cellular phones. Motorola produced the first handheld phone in 1973. It weighed over two pounds and was over nine inches long. If you needed to use it, you had approximately 30 minutes of talk time before waiting ten hours for the batteries to recharge. Soon after came the cell phones in a bag, flip phones, smartphones, Blackberry’s, and iPhones. Back in 1973, when cellular technology cost enough to cover a few months of mortgage payments, $3995 when the Motorola DynaTAC was first available to consumers in 1993, the idea of WIFI in the palm of your hand was unheard of.

But here we are. Today, cellular technology is rapidly expanding, phones can do more than most desktop computers, and many people have chosen to do away with landline phones in favor of more convenient 5G cellular technology that can fit in their pocket. Despite all the convenience it provides, portable smart technology has led to problems as well for teens and adults alike.

Addictions and dependency on technology are growing problems throughout the nation. Most of us depend heavily on mobile and smart devices for information and to maintain our schedules and connections to others. Fear of losing our devices is not always without merit. Not only are they extremely costly to replace, but in many cases, they are the one-stop-shop for everything from family photos to banking transactions. Still, it is usually possible to put down technology for a time or not feel obligated to rush back home to collect a forgotten device. But what happens when this becomes impossible?

What is Nomophobia?
Nomophobia is a shortened version of the words “no mobile phone phobia.” It is used to describe the fear of not having your phone. One could be without their phone because they forgot it, lost or misplaced it, or, in the case of teens, it was taken away. Regardless of the reason, the fear of not having access to one’s phone becomes so persistent and overwhelming it can have a detrimental impact on daily life.

Although there are no scientific studies based in the United States, various studies suggest this phobia is becoming more widespread among teens and adults. For example,
a 2017 study conducted on first-year medical students in India found evidence that 18% of study participants experienced mild symptoms of nomophobia. As many as 60% of participants experienced moderate symptoms, and 22% were severe. Another study conducted in 2019 indicated as many as 53% of British people who owned a mobile phone in 2008 experienced anxiety when they did not have their phone, had a dead battery or were in an area where they did not have service.

What are the Symptoms of Nomophobia?
The most current version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders or DSM is the fifth edition. Published in 2013, the DSM-5 does not include diagnostic criteria for nomophobia or any other form of smartphone addiction. For now, mental health experts are still working to define and understand what the diagnostic criteria may look like for the disorder. Both the medical and mental health communities are still working to understand how nomophobia may impact the psychological and potentially physical health of adults and teens both in the short and long term.

Despite a lack of clear diagnostic direction, the mental health community generally agrees that nomophobia presents and will continue to present an ongoing concern for mental health for adults and teens. Some experts believe nomophobia could meet the criteria for classification as dependence or addiction. If this were to occur in the next edition of the DSM, nomophobia treatment might follow a similar treatment pattern as those used for other behavioral addictions.

Phobias, in general, are a form of anxiety disorder. When someone has a phobia of something (dogs, people, spiders, heights, etc.), exposure to the source of their fear elicits a significant fear response. These psychological responses often lead to emotional and physical symptoms. Again, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders does not define specific symptoms of nomophobia; however, possible symptoms could mimic those experienced with other anxiety disorders.

Possible Emotional Symptoms
Emotional symptoms your teen may experience could include panic or anxiety if they cannot find their phone, worry or fear when they think about not having their phone or being unable to use it, irritation, and stress or anxiety when they can’t check messages.

Possible Physical Symptoms
When people experience anxiety, physical symptoms often occur in addition to phycological responses. Depending on the level of fear and the duration of one’s exposure to their fear, the physical symptoms could become overwhelming. Possible physical symptoms may include difficulty breathing, trembling, shaking, elevated heart rate, chest tightness or pain, sweating, and feeling faint or dizzy. In more severe cases, the fear may become overwhelming and may lead to a panic attack.

If your teen has nomophobia, they may recognize and understand their fear is irrational or extreme. However, as with many other phobias, without treatment at Hillcrest, where they can learn to manage their symptoms, they will likely have difficulty coping or managing their reactions to not having their phone.

Potential Signs of Nomophobia in Your Teen
When your teen struggle with a phobia such as nomophobia, they will try to do whatever they can to avoid the feelings of fear and distress produced by exposure to their fear. If their fear response is triggered by not having access to their phone, they may do everything possible to ensure their phone is close enough to use and never out of sight. A variety of behaviors could indicate your teen has a dependency on their phone. Some common examples may include taking the phone to bed or into the bathroom with them, spending several hours a day on their phone, making sure their phone is visible when not in use, checking their phone constantly for messages and notifications, and presenting with feelings of hopelessness or helplessness when they don’t have their phone.

Causes and Risk Factors for Nomophobia
The root cause of nomophobia likely stems from a growing reliance on technology in our day-to-day lives. Society, in general, has become highly dependent on portable technology for immediate access to news, information, calendars, and social media. Good or bad, people of all ages often experience some level of worry when they consider what may happen if they cannot access the information they need or want when they want to.

Current studies have yet to find a specific cause or risk factor for nomophobia. Like other phobias or anxiety disorders, several factors may contribute. The first is isolation. Teens generally use their phones to communicate with others. For many, social media and messaging services have become a communication lifeline. Anxiety, worry, and loneliness may result if they cannot use their phone or communicate with others with the frequency they are accustomed to.

Teens may develop nomophobia due to environmental factors as well. If a parent or sibling displays signs of nomophobia (or another phobia or anxiety disorder), it may increase the risk of developing a similar phobia or anxiety.

Diagnosing and Treating Nomophobia
If you recognize some of the symptoms of nomophobia in your teen, it is a good idea to contact their primary care provider or a mental health professional here at Hillcrest. Worrying about having their phone or frequently using their phone does not indicate nomophobia. However, if they have experienced symptoms for six months or longer, talking to a professional may help your teen and family better understand their symptoms. Again, there is not an “official” diagnosis for nomophobia yet. A trained mental health professional at Hillcrest can recognize the symptoms of a phobia or anxiety disorder. Early diagnosis can help ensure your teen gets the help they learn to manage their symptoms better.

Treatment for nomophobia resembles that of other phobias. Your teen’s doctor or mental health professional will likely recommend treatment if your teen’s symptoms cause difficulties with their day-to-day life. Part of your teen’s treatment plan will likely involve evidence-based behavioral therapies to treat other types of phobias. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) can help your teen learn to manage the negative emotions they feel when they think about not having their phone. CBT can help your teen learn to change their negative thoughts into more helpful, useful ones.

Another therapy model used to treat phobias such as nomophobia is exposure therapy. This type of therapy helps your teen learn to face their fear through gradual exposure to it in a safe setting. When used as a treatment for nomophobia, your teen will slowly get used to not having their phone. The goal is not to avoid using their phone altogether but to better manage and reduce the feelings of extreme fear resulting from not having it nearby or when they think about not having it.

Other treatment options include medications and self-care. Depending on your teen’s symptoms, their mental health treatment team at Hillcrest may prescribe certain medications that are proven helpful in treating other phobias. It is important to remember that medication is not a stand-alone treatment, and not every situation will benefit from incorporating medication as part of a comprehensive treatment plan.

As a family, you can work with your teen to include self-care and improved coping steps into their daily routine. For example, have your teen turn off their phone at night or arrange times of the day where technology is turned off. Also, have them leave their phone at home for short periods while they go to the store or talk a walk. Small actions can help your teen learn that bad things won’t necessarily happen if they do not have their phone.

Nomophobia is not yet classified as a mental health condition; however, the symptoms your teen may experience are equally as overwhelming and debilitating as those of any other phobia. Nomophobia appears most often in adolescents and teens, so if you are worried about your teen and their attachment to their phone, reach out to the team at Hillcrest to learn more about nomophobia and how treatment and lifestyle changes may help.

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