Nomophobia, Another Modern Malady


By Tim Moran

The ubiquity of technology—especially mobile technology—is having some profound effects on people and society. Three issues, in particular, have been in the news lately.

Issue 1: The End of Boredom

The constant presence and use of mobile technology has, for the most part obliterated people's boredom, which would seem like a good thing, but might not be. Consider a recent CNN.com article entitled “Have Smartphones Killed Boredom (and Is That Good)?

Author Doug Gross writes: "Thanks to technology, there's been a recent sea change in how people today kill time. Those dog-eared magazines in your doctor's office are going unread. Your fellow customers in line at the deli counter are being ignored. And simply gazing around at one's surroundings? Forget about it." Sound familiar?

Gross points out that there's some logic behind this, for tapping on and checking the mobile phone is yet another way to deal with "a basic human need to cure boredom by any means necessary." But this is not such a good thing. Researchers at Oxford University, for instance, fear that by "filling almost every second of down time by peering at our phones, we are missing out on the creative and potentially rewarding ways we've dealt with boredom in days past."

Issue 2: Focus and Learning

A recent New York Times article, “Growing Up Digital, Wired for Distraction,” by Matt Richtel, posits that "computers and cell phones, and the constant stream of stimuli they offer, pose a profound new challenge to focusing and learning." This is especially critical for young people.

Researchers suggest that the constant use of today's technologies—mobile and otherwise—can have a profound effect on developing brains, brains that "can become more easily habituated than adult brains to constantly switching tasks and less able to sustain attention.” One researcher said that students’ brains are being rewarded for jumping from one task to another, not for focusing and concentrating.

"The worry," said Michael Rich, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School, "is that we're raising a generation of kids in front of screens whose brains are going to be wired differently."

Issue 3: Addiction

As hard as it might be to believe—though, given the information above, it actually makes sense—a leading drug and alcohol recovery center, Morningside Recovery Center in California, has created the first known recovery group designed to deal with "nomophobia," a neologism meaning "the fear of being without mobile technology" (no mobilephone).

According to a recent study, reports Morningside, "two-thirds of the population suffers from nomophobia." And cases of addiction appear to be on the rise: With new mobile devices and technology hitting the market every day, reports of nomophobia are up 13 percent from just a couple of years ago.

"We use cell phones every day," said Dr. Elizabeth Waterman, a top addiction and recovery expert, "but for a growing number of people, staying connected has become an obsession that occupies every waking minute. For them, fear and anxiety run through their veins when they lose their cell, run out of battery, have no network coverage or simply imagine living life without a mobile device."

This is normally where I throw in a zinger or smart-alecky crack, but I have none here. This is just sad and scary.