Do you get intensely anxious when your mobile phone runs out of battery or you don’t know where it is? If so, researchers in the US believe you could be showing signs of a distinctly modern malaise: “nomophobia”, or “no mobile phone phobia”.
To galvanise more research into the phenomenon, Caglar Yildirim and Ana-Paula Correia have developed a 20-item nomophobia questionnaire. The pair began by interviewing nine undergrads (five women) who were identified as being heavily dependent on their smartphones. Discussions with these students revealed four key themes, providing inspiration for the new questionnaire.
The first theme was “the fear of not being able to communicate”. Here’s 22-year-old Tracy illustrating the point: “I just blew through my first 300 mins a couple of days ago. I was like ‘Now how are people going to call me?’ Even that makes me have a feeling of anxiety.” The researchers included questionnaire items to tap this theme including: “I would feel nervous because I would not be able to receive text messages and calls” (answered on a 7-point scale from “strongly disagree” to “disagree”).
The second theme was losing connectedness. The students described the fear of being disconnected from their online identities, especially on social media, and of wanting to be able to keep up to date with notifications on their phones. Twenty-one-year-old Olivia said she that in certain situations (“like on the bus or if I am sitting outside the classroom waiting for the class to start“) she wouldn’t know what to do with herself without her phone. One of the questionnaire items to tap this theme was: “I would feel anxious because I could not check my email messages.”
Not being able to access information was the third theme. “I like having information at my fingertips like if I don’t know the answer of something, I wanna know it right away … If I couldn’t … that would make me uncomfortable,” said Olivia. This factor was measured with questionnaire items like “Being unable to get the news on my smartphone would make me nervous.”
Finally, the students spoke about the fear of the loss of convenience of a smartphone and how they were vigilant to ensure they always had battery charge. “If it does die, you lose your peace of mind,” said John. On the questionnaire, this was measured with items like “If I could not use my smartphone, I would be afraid of getting stranded somewhere.”
Next, the researchers had 300 more students fill out the new questionnaire, and then checked that there were correlations between the students’ answers to the items that were meant to tap into the same theme or factor. This was to test the so-called “internal consistency” of the proposed factors and, on that measure, the new questionnaire came out well. Scores on the nomophobia questionnaire also correlated with an existing scale – the “Test of Mobile Phone Dependence” – lending further support to the idea that new questionnaire is measuring what it’s supposed to (known as “construct validity”).
Yildirim and Correia said nomophobia is a plausible candidate for being seen as a new form of “situational phobia” – i.e. an intense fear that’s triggered in specific circumstances, in this case, when one’s smartphone is unavailable (existing situational phobias recognised by psychiatry include fear of flying and fear of bridges). The researchers said that research into nomophobia is scarce but they hope their new questionnaire will help – especially to find out other psychological problems that tend to go together with nomophobia, and which demographic groups are most vulnerable to the postulated condition.
This post first appeared on the British Psychological Society’s Research Digest Blog. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.
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Author: Christian Jarrett, a cognitive neuroscientist turned science writer, is editor and creator of the British Psychological Society’s Research Digest.
Image: People use their smart phones as they sit at Kennedy park. REUTERS/ Mariana Bazo.