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What is Nomophobia

Think phobias only relate to eight-legged critters, tall buildings and small spaces? Think again. There's a new phobia in town and it's got your number...

Where trends in digital health are concerned, it’s no surprise to see the big buzzwords crop up in predictions time and time again — AI, blockchain, remote monitoring... It’s not so much about uncovering “the next big thing”, as it is identifying when new developments will reach scalable, sustainable and, thereby, successful status. 

A minimalist illustration depicts two hands with a blue outline against a yellow background. The left hand is pulling a smartphone that is stuck to the right hand.

Take my blog on the Apple Watch, for example. Remote heart rhythm monitoring technology is an incredible asset to develop, but in trend terms its real worth is measured by uptake and ongoing usage. AKA — the proof is in the pudding.


Of course, trends aren’t always positive, which is why my curiosity was piqued by the supposed rise in “nomophobia” in recent years. Defined by the Cambridge Dictionary as:


"Fear or worry at the idea of being without your mobile phone or unable to use it."

It’s hardly a ringing endorsement for technology — more like alarms bells!

When you hear the word “phobia” you might think spiders, snakes, confined spaces (or perhaps all three combined!). It conjures up thoughts of breathlessness, panic, terror, helplessness, the feeling of being stuck, the prospect of pain or perhaps even death. And, for the most part, I can see the rationale behind such fears.


Certain spider bites can kill you. I only had to see the 1990 Jeff Daniels' film, Arachnophobia, once to know that you should NEVER eat popcorn without thoroughly inspecting it for rogue Venezuelan arachnids…


But a fear of being without a mobile phone? That’s a concept that is harder to grapple with. History, science and logic tell us that humans have inhabited the earth for thousands of years without smartphone technology, and — generally — have done so successfully. We still exist as an advanced and dominant species, after all.   

An illustration shows a figure standing next to a bell jar containing a smartphone, pinging with notifications. To the right of the bell jar is a clock.

Picture yourself in 1993. The UK singles charts are dominated by Whitney Houston, Take That and Mr Blobby. Jurassic Park introduces us to the worst dinosaur supervisor of all time in Phil Tippett. Bill Clinton is enjoying his first taste of the Oval Office. John Major is the PM.


There is no talk of Brexit dominating daily news bulletins. There’s no such concept as “Brexit” at all! But there is also no Amazon. There is no Google, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook... There’s not even MySpace or MSN messenger. Or smartphones.


Although the term “smartphone” wasn’t coined until 1995, the first commercially available device that fit that description — the IBM Simon — was officially released the year before, in 1994 — and what a sight to behold!


Fast forward 25 years, and psychiatrists are purportedly pushing for “nomophobia” to become a recognised phobia.

YouGov RealTime research reveals a whopping 72% of 18-24 year olds would worry that their friends and family could not reach them without a smartphone, compared to only 47% for the older generation of 45 years and above. Even more startling, however, is the sheer volume of 18-24 year olds (45%) who agreed with the sentiment “I would feel weird because I would not know what to do” if presented with the prospect of being phoneless for 24 hours. 


Now, I must admit that seeing the stats in black and white is a bit of a shock to the system. Not least, because I’m surely as guilty as those being polled for having my smartphone by my side at all times. 


I spend a significant proportion of my working week on calls, and when I’m not conversing, I’m checking email, booking travel tickets, reading the news, catching up on Twitter, connecting on LinkedIn, watching funny clips of cats. You get the idea…


I suppose, when you think about it, the prospect of suddenly being disconnected is a daunting one. I would hate not knowing if my children are safely tucked up in bed when I hit the hay on the other side of the world. Mobile devices have made it so incredibly easy to communicate that it is genuinely difficult to imagine a life without them. 


My gut reaction was that deriving a “phobia” from a fear of disconnect seems a little dramatic, but the more you think about it, the more you understand its merit. It’s not a fear of the physical, in the way that you may be scared of a shark attack or a broken-down lift in a fifty-storey building. It’s the fear of the possible; the what-ifs... 


If YouGov were to take the same set of people but phrase the question slightly differently, I’m sure the answers would alter significantly. For example:


"If you had a 100% guarantee that you and all of your friends and family would be safe and healthy, would you worry if you didn’t have a mobile phone for 24 hours?"


You might be mildly concerned that you’d miss a few emails or appointments, or annoyed at the prospect of wearing an old-fashioned wristwatch again after a decade of relying on your home screen. Perhaps you’d be irked at having to actually sit down and watch the 10 o’clock News to get your fill of Brexit BS, but other than that I expect you’d feel ok about it.


It certainly wouldn’t be a bad thing to “disconnect” regularly, if only at meal times or after 9pm at night. Perhaps start small and build up; anything to break the addiction to what is, in large part, a source of instant gratification. 

A cartoon image of a serene person with a rucksack standing in a colourful scene with pink trees and yellow ground. A sun shines in a blue sky dotted with clouds, and mountains loom in the distance.

There is a wealth of statistics illustrating the detrimental impact of over-usage on mental health, with high screen times beginning to be linked to depression and even suicide. 


CB Insights, in their 2018 Digital Health Trends briefing, pointed to a turning in sentiment towards social media, quoting from big names in the industry, including Sean Parker, ex-President at Facebook:


“I don’t know if I really understood the consequences of what I was saying, because [of] the unintended consequences of a network when it grows to a billion or 2 billion people and… it literally changes your relationship with society, with each other… God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains.”

And from Salesforce CEO, Marc Benioff:


“Here’s a product — cigarettes — they’re addictive, they’re not good for you, maybe there’s all kinds of different forces trying to get you to do certain things. There’s a lot of parallels [to social media]… I think that for sure, technology has addictive qualities that we have to address, and that product designers are working to make those products more addictive and have to rein that back.”


There’s certainly an air of Pandora’s Box about the internet, social media and smartphones. Nobody could have predicted how much technology would change the lives of so many in such a short space of time. Apart from David Bowie, that is. But we all knew he was not from these parts…

And on that prophetic note, let’s log off. Put our phones down. Read a book. Play guitar. Drink a glass of Malbec and watch the sunset. Do a crossword. Have a real-life conversation...

We might actually enjoy it!


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