The University of Genoa’s School of Public Health has put forth a proposal to officially add nomophobia, fear of not having a working mobile phone – these days Smartphones – to the new Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). The DSM is considered the gold standard resource for psychiatric assessment. It is becoming more common for people to suffer from terrible anxiety if they lose their phone, even if only for a few minutes.
The world relies on Smartphones for everything from GPS to Siri, from banking to investing, from sexting to selfies, and to connect with others via social media. The ability to carry out so many daily tasks while lying in bed or standing in line has turned “down time” into “smart time” for millions. 56 percent of all Americans own a Smartphone and, in many cases, gadgets have become the new generation’s best friend. On commuter buses and trains these days, the silence is deafening as travelers spend their time inside their Smartphone.
Is adding nomophobia to the new DSM-5 as a phobia an extreme measure? It depends how deep the dependence on Smartphones goes. According to the Mayo Clinic, phobias are divided into three categories: specific, social and the fear of open spaces, which gets a category of its own. Specific phobias involve fear of a situation or object that is out of proportion to its actual risk: fear of snakes, spiders, needles, clowns, heights, or flying fall into this category. Social phobia goes far beyond shyness and involves an active fear of humiliation in social situations, or debilitating self-consciousness. Fear of open spaces, or agoraphobia, is really a fear of an anticipated or actual situation. Agorophobics generally develop the condition after having experience with panic attacks – they fear they will have another attack and begin to avoid the place where the panic occurred. The condition can be so severe that sufferers are unable to leave their home.
If nomophobia were to be officially added to the DSM as a phobia, it would fall under the “specific” category where sufferers would exhibit terror or overwhelming panic upon losing track their Smartphone. Nomophobics would be unable to function normally because of the anxiety over their phone and would experience physical symptoms like rapid heartbeat, sweating, or difficulty breathing. In children, the symptoms would manifest as clinging or crying, and possibly full-blown tantrums. Researchers at Genoa’s School of Public Health believe nomophobia has become pervasive and severe enough that it belongs in the DSM.
Technology entrepreneurs are capitalizing on this Smartphone dependence. Android’s app, Find My Phone, will locate any phone within a list of phone numbers on a single account, typically family members. This application allows users to track a lost or stolen phone with ease. According to news reports, it has also been used to track errant spouses or children. Apple has a similar app called Find My iPhone, which allows users to install the app on another iOS device and be able to track an iPhone, iPad, iPod touch, or Mac. MIT’s technology think-tank put forth the idea of “ultra-private” Smartphones in this year’s Technology Review. Maryland-based company, Silent Circle, plans to release a secure, encrypted cellphone called a Blackphone that prevents eavesdropping and protects the phone’s metadata. Such a product would be perfect for the nomophobic with security concerns.
If the nomophobia is more a fear of “being out of cell phone contact,” the BreakFree app is available on Android and will soon be coming to iPhones. BreakFree touts they will “help users maintain a controlled digital lifestyle.” The app helps with usage monitoring, provides an addiction score, keeps a history of that score, gives usage statistics for things like most-used apps or call patterns, and allows users to manage their phone usage by sending auto text messages, disabling the internet or rejecting phone calls during a schedule the user sets. The app has also received rave reviews as a parental control device.
Regardless of whether the nomophobia is focused on Smartphones themselves, as a specific phobia, or is more a fear of being out of contact, the Genoa researchers are pushing forward on the studies needed to add the phobia to the DSM. A great way to test for nomophobia is to install an app like BreakFree, or simply turn the phone off, and see whether stress levels rise.
By Jenny Hansen