Larry Rosen knows he has a problem. Headed home from work, the psychology professor said his heart skipped a beat when he glanced at his iPhone and suddenly realized his battery was at 7%. He had no charger. “You get this feeling: Oh my God, I’m lost,” he said.
Prof. Rosen, a past chairman of the psychology department at California State University, Dominguez Hills, knows whereof he speaks. He is a leading researcher in a new field of scientific inquiry that is attracting dozens of researchers across the globe and is increasingly being treated by clinical psychologists: smartphone anxiety.
Does your heart rate jump when your iPhone battery dips below 20%? You could be suffering from what some experts term “low-battery anxiety.”
Do your palms sweat when you have no access to cell service? You could have an acute case of “nomophobia.” Short for no-mobile-phobia, the term describes the fear people can feel when they are out of mobile contact entirely.
Around 15 papers have been published on nomophobia alone since 2014, and dozens more have been published on smartphone-related anxieties since 2016, according to records kept by the U.S. National Library of Medicine.
A growing number of psychologists, psychiatrists and communications researchers are delving into these vexing issues of the modern era, finding ways to analyze and document these conditions.
At the University of Missouri, researchers deliberately separated people from their smartphones to study their reactions. In South Korea, psychiatrists developed a Smartphone Addiction Scale.
Subjects are asked to score how much they relate to the phrase “My life would be empty without my smartphone.”
At California State University, psychologists asked subjects to watch a video, put their smartphones on a desk behind them, then got their phones started pinging with text messages to see how that affected subjects’ heart rates.
“Experimenters can be mean,” said Jon Elhai, a University of Toledo researcher and co-author of a dozen papers on problematic smartphone use. One of them concluded the devices could amplify the contemporary angst known as FoMO (fear of missing out).
Some nomophobes are turning to one another for comfort. An app called Die With Me allows users with less than 5% battery life to enter a chat room where they can talk through their fears with others as their phones collectively head toward the great beyond.
“Be quiet and save your strength,” Scotsman Jamie Dorman advised another app user who was feeling a moment of crisis.
Given the limited nature of their time together via the app, Marcel Klimo of Bratislava, Slovakia, said he quickly pressed others for the answer to a question he always wondered about: Which came first, the chicken or the egg?
“That’s an 8% battery question, not a 4% battery question,” someone replied.
Smartphone research is rooted partly in a 2008 study by the U.K.’s postal service. The organization, which sold prepaid phone cards at the time, commissioned the study and concluded that 13 million Britons considered losing their phone or running out of juice to be among the most stressful things in their lives. The Post Office coined the term “nomophobia” to describe the feeling, and the term burrowed its way into the English language, joining the Merriam-Webster dictionary in 2016.
Health researchers in Brazil followed with a 2010 paper analyzing a patient who said he had kept his phone with him continuously since 1995.
“In this report, we present and discuss a hypothesis for the development, in individuals with panic disorder and agoraphobia, of dependence on his or her mobile phone,” said the study’s abstract.
“Result: The patient was treated with medication and cognitive-behavior psychotherapy. He has remained asymptomatic for 4 years.”
In 2014, Italian public-health scientists compared nomophobia to conditions such as musophobia, the fear of mice, and brontophobia, the fear of thunderstorms. They began lobbying to have nomophobia designated an official illness in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, known as the DSM, in a science journal article.
The DSM section on anxiety disorders won’t be updated for several years, said Michelle Craske, who led that section. She laughed at the notion of people having genuine fear their smartphones might die.
“For me, it would be the same as someone having a phobia of not getting letters in the mail,” she said. “I wouldn’t say there needs to be a separate classification for that.”
Nancy Cheever, a media psychology specialist who co-founded a lab with Dr. Rosen at California State University, Dominguez Hills , disagrees—and has created a modern-day torture chamber to prove doubters wrong.
Her methodology involves bringing subjects into a psychology lab with blank walls. Placing their smartphones about three feet behind them—far enough so the subjects would have to get up to retrieve them—she floods the devices with four texts. She has found that self-described heavy phone users’ anxiety soars when their phone pings, while those who use their devices less don’t experience a change.
“This is a real problem. Yes, it is a First World problem for sure that we created, but it’s still important,” said Dr. Cheever, who recently approached the National Science Foundation about funding future research.
Some clinical psychologists find patients increasingly raising concerns about smartphone anxiety. Kathy Marshack, in Portland, Ore., recently wrote a blog post about nomophobia because of an increase in patients seeking cellphone therapy.
Dr. Marshack said she teaches patients to deal with it the same as with any anxiety. Relax. Breathe deeply. Avoid triggers such as leaving home without your charger.
For now, the Die With Me chat room can be such an escape from the anxiety of a dying phone that one of its users, Mr. Klimo, who works in tech, has talked with a colleague about creating a way to stay in the app longer. His colleague suggested a feature that would allow users who have a power cord to keep the battery life at just under 5%.
“I told him that would be like cheating death,” Mr. Klimo said. “But I guess we all want to live forever.”
Source: Wall Street Journal