The recent worldwide outage of Instagram, Facebook, Messenger, and Whatsapp that lasted only a few hours briefly wreaked havoc on many people’s lives. Part of it was concretely detrimental, like small businesses being cut off from their customers and losing income. But the large part manifested in immaterial ways, such as panic over the sudden inaccessibility of the popular apps that people rely on in all kinds of ways.
It faced us with some obvious facts hidden in plain sight, one of which is the level of our dependency on smartphone apps that goes way above the actual need for the services they provide. The medical community labeled the psychological overreliance they can cause as addiction: social media addiction, internet addiction, and smartphone addiction. One term—nomophobia—specifically describes anxiety about not having access to a mobile phone or mobile phone services.
Nomophobia (short for “no-mobile-phone phobia”) was coined in 2008 by the UK Post Office to determine if mobile phones were feeding anxiety. The results showed that about half of respondents felt stress when not in contact with their phones. This was 13 years ago and, with the enormous development of new technologies enabling virtual communication, things have only gotten much worse. More recent surveys have shown that about 77% of teenagers and adolescents experience anxiety while being without their phones.
Nowadays, more attention is paid to the psychopathological effects of smartphones, which will keep increasing in the future. Even though not officially labeled as such, nomophobia is presently perceived and treated as a phobia based on the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Often associated with separation anxiety, it comes with a combination of symptoms: increased heart rate and blood pressure, shortness of breath, anxiety, nausea, trembling, dizziness, depression, discomfort, fear, and panic.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise knowing that smartphones are highly addictive by design; apps are built on gambling methods to yield psychological cravings. The fear of being without one is thus a fear of being cut off from the addictive supply which satisfies (or substitutes) a range of our needs and desires; from interpersonal communication and information access, to self-soothing and boredom-curbing distraction.
To some extent, we are all dependent on smartphones. However, it can be recognized as a problem when reaching for it can no longer be controlled; when our daily habits, behaviors, perception, identity, sleep patterns, and social interactions are changed, causing disturbed inner lives, isolation, physical and financial problems, and vulnerability to further damage, such as car accidents or the effects of radiofrequency radiation.
Having all this in mind, especially after a prolonged period of restricted face-to-face socialization and more screentime than ever due to the Covid-19 pandemic, a digital detox of sorts and extra measures of keeping our smartphone dependency under control should be put at the top of our self-care list. The path to breaking free from nomophobia and towards a healthier lifestyle can be very individual, but there are some steps proven to be highly beneficial, such as:
- Turning off all inessential notifications
- Turning off smartphone overnight and at least one hour before sleep
- Switching off smartphone for 24 or more hours
- Creating physical distance between you and your phone
- Fighting technology with technology via apps helping manage smartphone use
- Using signal-blocking accessories (such as Toca products)
- Establishing phone-free zones at home, in social situations, etc.
- Focusing on enjoyable activities away from the screens
- Engaging in the “real” world and human contact.
The level of technological advancement and its interference in our lives make it hard to master feelings and impulses when it comes to smartphone use, but in comparison to some other addictions and phobias, it is still relatively painless to reverse smartphone-related psychological conditions. The point is not to force a willpower that won’t be there to stay, but to introduce simple daily measures (like the ones listed above) and develop healthier habits.