FIRST reported in March of 2008 by the United Kingdom’s Daily Mail, nomophobia is defined as “no mobile phone” phobia — the fear of losing one’s cellphone. The article cited British research finding that 53 percent of 2,100 mobile-phone users surveyed suffered anxiety when they lost their phones, network coverage dropped or their batteries ran out. At least one additional study had been conducted in India to define the problem.
This device addiction differs both in kind and in magnitude from our previous dependence on technology and it is time to pause and take stock of the situation. In the “old days” of the 1980s, we were able to leave our homes and offices without mourning the separation from our landlines or typewriters. Today, not only do 91 percent of Americans own cellphones, but Pew Research reports that 83 percent of us consider them to be an “essential” part of our daily lives. As of last spring, half of these devices were smartphones with Internet access.
Lest one wonder whether the phenomenon of nomophobia is real, try the thought experiment of being without your phone for 24 to 36 hours. Measure the perceived need of having access to your globally connected digital device against your actual need to consult it for data, text or voice communication during the day. On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being “I would snooze as soundly as Ken Griffey Jr. in the clubhouse” and 10 being “My stress level would approach 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh watching his team lose the Super Bowl,” how much anxiety would you experience?
When I left my phone in Los Angeles after a recent visit, I suffered a bout of nomophobia and realized I had three options to maintain my sanity: First, I could panic, scramble to find a computer and blast out emails to everyone — whether or not they cared — telling them I had lost my phone.
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Second, I could shop for a new phone and marvel at the host of new models.
Third, I could take a deep breath and reconnect with some of the old ways of doing things, such as using a landline, composing a letter and making an appointment without triply confirming via text and email.
As things transpired, I pursued all three options. The panic lasted less than an hour. The shopping was fun, and I sampled the whizzy new Windows phones and other devices. Finally, I tried to savor what life was like in that Rip Van Winkle era before 1993, when we left messages on answering machines and received breaking news via radio or television.
Nomophobia is real, and the syndrome reveals much about our state of mind in the year 2013. We have now experienced a decade of connection via 3G and 4G networks to the vast data library of the Internet and one must marvel at how quickly our social habits have adapted to the new universe of instant communication.
We have seen this explosive uptake pattern before: The Bell Telephone Company was founded in 1877 and by 1900 there were 800,000 Bell phones in service, growing to 30 million by 1948 as Americans learned to “reach out and touch someone.” Yet the new array of devices clearly tap into the fundamental human impulse to communicate and be reachable continually during our waking (and even sleeping) hours, creating a more powerful grip on our psyches.
Of course, some will contend that we always have the option of exercising our free will and pressing the “off” switch. Or do we still have that power when our phones vibrate, chirp, tweet, ring and otherwise beckon us for the instant communication that now defines our lives?
Alex Alben’s latest book is “Analog Days — How Technology Rewrote Our Future.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org