Ever had that moment of panic when your smartphone is down to 1% battery and you don’t have a charger?

Or how about the cold, clammy dread when you realise you’ve left your phone at home?

You might be suffering from “nomophobia”.

This “no mobile phone” phobia is an emerging term that some psychologists use to describe the fear people have of being without their smartphone.

And the latest evidence suggests that it happens because these devices have become so personalized that they are seen as extensions of ourselves.

Image: REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

Researchers from the City University of Hong Kong and the Sungkyunkwan University in Seoul identified a link between factors such as personal memories and users’ greater attachment to their smartphones.

This, say the researchers in their paper published in the journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, leads to nomophobia and a tendency to keep your phone close at all times.

While previous research has linked nomophobia to anxieties around an inability to communicate and a fear of missing out, the new research suggest that phone owners also form strong personal attachments to the devices themselves, due to the photos, messages and other data that they hold.

Digital detox

Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking journal Editor-in-Chief Brenda K. Wiederhold says those suffering from nomophobia could benefit from exposure therapy.

This is a common method for treating anxiety disorders, where the sufferer is exposed to the thing they are afraid of.

"Nomophobia, fear of missing out (FoMo), and fear of being offline (FoBo) – all anxieties born of our new high-tech lifestyles – may be treated similarly to other more traditional phobias,” says Wiederhold.

“Exposure therapy, in this case turning off technology periodically, can teach individuals to reduce anxiety and become comfortable with periods of disconnectedness."

This idea of a digital detox is one that is already gaining ground among many regular internet users.

In the UK more than a third of internet users did a digital detox at some point last year.

Image: Ofcom

The age group that uses the internet most and is most likely to take a digital detox is 16-24 year-olds: the generation dubbed the millennials.

Research published in the Harvard Business Review has shown millennials’ high exposure to social media has led to higher levels of anxieties than any other generation today.

To combat this, says the study’s author, millennials should occasionally disconnect from their online lives and spend time alone to reflect on the priorities in their lives.

Path to success

Not only can having a digital detox be good for your mental health and reduce anxiety levels, but it may also help you to be more productive.

In a post titled 11 ways to outsmart your brain and be a better leader, anthropologist and World Economic Forum Young Global Leader Tinna Nielsen says email and social media can distract us from our real work.

When we stop working on a task to check emails it takes the brain about 23 minutes to get back into the task at hand.

Nielsen says you can help your brain not to do this by designing your messaging systems not to inform you about incoming email or instant messages/chats, and only check them at a certain time, such as after lunch or late afternoon when you are tired most often.

Or you can follow Nielsen’s own example: she has set up an autoreply stating that she’ll check emails on Friday, asking people to send a text message if it’s urgent.

So far, she says, only eight people have deemed their messages important enough to send by text.

This has released a lot of time for Nielsen to do actual work and to be creative and efficient, improving contemplation and decision-making.