A silent cultural shift has taken place within the last two decades. In the viral 2013 short film I Forgot My Phone, director and actor Charlene deGuzman was seen hiking at sunrise, celebrating a birthday and enjoying a drink with friends - and each of these moments was disrupted by someone’s incessant smartphone use. In another scene, a man got down on one knee on a beach to propose to his girlfriend. And instead of fully enjoying that life-changing moment, they were busy recording the engagement using a smartphone. We are all now alone with our smartphones, even when we are together.
In the process, the coinage ‘nomophobia’ has been named Cambridge Dictionary’s word of 2018. This certainly indicates people around the world experience this type of anxiety while living in today’s digital world, where we connect with others through our phones. Nomophobia is an anxiety disorder. In addition to the mind, it affects relationships where a person is psychologically absent despite being physically present.
Nomophobia is defined as “the fear of being out of mobile phone contact”. In 2008, the UK Post Office commissioned YouGov to investigate anxieties mobile phone users suffer from, and the term ‘nomophobia’ was used as an abbreviation for no-mobile-phone-phobia. The study on over 2,100 people showed that 53% of mobile phone users (58% of male participants and 48% of women) suffered from it. A 2012 study by SecurEnvoy, a UK security company, on 1,000 employees indicated that the number of nomophobic people had increased to 66% (70% of women and 61% men). Young adults aged 18-24 were most prone to nomophobia (77%) - a result not unexpected though.
Some experts consider nomophobia a 21st-century disorder. However, it’s not included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition. But in an Iowa State University study, researchers developed 20 questions to numerically determine whether or not someone has nomophobia and if so, its severity. This questionnaire is available online. According to Psychology Today, 66% of US adults suffer from nomophobia. It’s difficult to perceive the exact percentage in India, and how it’s changing over time. However, given the widespread and ever-increasing smartphone culture in this country, the percentage should not be less than the US figure.
Often associated with separation anxiety, nomophobia comes with a set of identifiable symptoms - increased heart rate and blood pressure, shortness of breath, anxiety, nausea, trembling, discomfort, fear and panic. The detrimental effect of nomophobia on cognitive ability is also evidenced through various studies. But the medical community is still undecided about classifying it among phobias, anxiety disorders, lifestyle disorders and addictions.
Therapies for nomophobia range from interpersonal counselling, cognitive behavioural therapy, addiction therapy and exposure therapy. Another intrinsic aspect of treating nomophobia is self-help and educating patients on how to take control of their phone - rather than their phone having control over them. Digital detox camps are common in China. Also, apps like ‘Hold’ provide incentives for lowering phone usage.
Various studies reveal an average smartphone user unlocks their phone 150 times a day; in contrast, adults laugh around 10 times per day. Around 85% of smartphone users check their device while speaking with friends and family; adults spend 45 minutes per day, and 5.33 years of their lifetimes on social media on average; users spend 2 hours, 51 minutes a day on their smartphones; an average user touches their phone 2,617 times a day; and, interestingly, more people have smartphones than toilets worldwide. With technology continuing to dominate our lifestyles, is nomophobia the next epidemic waiting in the wings?
In her 2011 book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, MIT technology and society professor Sherry Turkle argues we are now in a state of ‘continual co-presence’ - digital communication allows the occurrence of two or more realities in the same place and time. There has been a paradigm shift in the style of communication: from face-to-face to text-based conversation. In the process, constant checking of phones - caused by reward learning and the fear of missing out - has possibly become the biggest non-drug addiction of the first quarter of the 21st century.
The ‘over-connection syndrome’, also described as ‘techno-stress’, is inversely proportional to the amount of face-to-face interactions.
We often see memes like family members dining together or lovers sitting in a park, but everybody is busy with their own smartphones. More than six years ago, deGuzman portrayed such a reality in her 130-second short film. Can smartphones break our families and friendships and redefine the age-old social structure? Or was our social bonding inherently so fragile at its root and the breaking just expedited by smartphones? In any case, an utterly dystopian ‘lonely togetherness’ has become a reality.
Atanu Biswas is Professor of Statistics, Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata. He can be reached on mail at email@example.com.