It was bound to happen. We’re apparently all addicted to our smartphones (even though mobile phone addiction doesn’t exist). Get thee to a signal-free zone immediately.
So says a spate of new(ish) research that claims many of us may be suffering from “nomophobia” (you know, no mobile phone phobia!).
It’s time for another reality check.
Throughout history, whenever a new technology has reared its strange and sometimes scary head, there’s been an outcry from a small but vocal group who can best be described as, “People can’t handle or adapt to newfangled things.” They then use anecdotes — or in modern times, Science! — to demonstrate how we’re all going to be worse people because of the new technology.1
Melinda Carstensen, over at Fox News, has a good, skeptical look at this new proposed phenomenon, echoing that this is really nothing new:
Andy Russell, an associate history professor at the Stevens Institute of Technology, in New Jersey, told FoxNews.com that nomophobia harkens back to the introduction of the term neurasthenia, a nervous disorder common among wealthier populations in the 1800s.
But she started the article2 with our old friend, the correlational study:
[…] Yildirim’s team asked about 300 undergraduate students at the Iowa State University 20 questions meant to measure their smartphone separation anxiety. Researchers observed that if participants scored high in one dimension, they also scored high in the other dimensions— a correlation the study authors say indicates nomophobia is a measurable behavioral condition.
But wait, here’s what the author of the study said in his original write-up of this same data (Yildirim, 2014):
Personally, I believe that people can become attached to inanimate objects like smartphones. With technology, the feeling of attachment can be almost inevitable for some people because of the advanced features such technological innovations as smartphones provide. This attachment to and bonding with technology can be attributed to the fact that people can get what they think they want through technology as Turkle (2012) argues. The attachment users feel to technology then may be more related to what they are getting out of their interactions with technology (p. 31).
So much for scientific objectivity in studying this so-called phenomenon.
Let’s step back a minute and understand what people use their smartphones for and what a “disorder” is to begin with.
Smartphone As Companion, Tool
Most young people today use a smartphone as both a companion and a tool. A companion in the sense of keeping themselves distracted while engaging in boring or monotonous tasks of everyday life. These tasks might include standing in line, waiting for someone, watching television, having a meal alone, waiting for something to start, etc. It would be the same as bringing a book, newspaper, puzzles, or magazine with you to help alleviate the boredom or waiting time.
The second common use of a smartphone is as a tool. The tool is multifacted, but is primarily used as a social connection tool (just as telephones once were used). It keeps us connected to people we’re interested in or have a direct relationship with (friends and family). It helps most of us to maintain and grow our relationships with others. It’s also commonly used in the workplace to keep communication flowing (and projects on schedule) between teammates and co-workers.
Can such a pro-social tool and companion ever be thought of as something that can be compared to drug addiction?
It seems ludicrous, and yet researchers are doing just that, suggesting that a portion of the population has become “addicted” to their smartphone — to these social connections and abilities that carrying a mini-computer give us. Would anyone ever think of saying people are addicted to reading, because they don’t like to be without a book while walking around town?
So I can’t help but wonder why some researchers continue to single out technology as the bad guy. Why is it a bad thing that a person feels a little anxious or nervous because they left their phone at home and can’t keep in touch — in the modern way — the way the rest of their peer group is keeping in touch? (In fact, I would find it odd if a person didn’t feel a little anxious at such an event.)
Garbage In, Garbage Out
How did we get to this point? It helps to look at the foundation for some of this research. Other new research (such as Pearson & Hussain, 2015) has just repurposed Young’s “Internet addiction” questions — questions that were themselves just repurposed to ask about pathological gambling behaviors! (Apparently there really is nothing new under the sun.)
These questions have methodological issues (is gambling behavior really consistent with prosocial behaviors?), so Yildirim decided to design his own questionnaire. To research a behavior he already concluded existed. Let’s look at some of the questions the researcher asked to come to his conclusion nomophobia is real:
11. If I did not have my smartphone with me, I would be worried because my family and/or friends could not reach me.
13. If I did not have my smartphone with me, I would be anxious because I could not keep in touch with my family and/or friends.
12. If I did not have my smartphone with me, I would feel nervous because I would not be able to receive text messages and calls.
14. If I did not have my smartphone with me, I would be nervous because I
could not know if someone had tried to get a hold of me.
10. If I did not have my smartphone with me, I would feel anxious because I could not instantly communicate with my family and/or friends.
15. If I did not have my smartphone with me, I would feel anxious.
Can you spot how wildly different these are? Or, like me, don’t they seem to be all asking a very similar thing in 6 different ways? What young adult wouldn’t answer some degree of “Yes” to these questions? Talk about a loaded measure.
As the Fox News article noted, “A 2012 study by authentication developer SecurEnvoy suggested 66 percent of 1,000 British adults suffered from nomophobia.” How can something be a “phobia” or disorder if everyone has it? That’s not a disorder — that’s the very definition of normal behavior.
It’s Okay — We All Get Anxious
It’s okay — we all get anxious from time to time. And it’s perfectly natural to feel anxious when a tool you use everyday is removed from your toolkit. Imagine a carpenter going to work and forgetting his measuring tape — he’d be pretty anxious that he could get fired for not having such a basic tool available to him.
And so it is with our smartphones and mobile phones. They’ve become an invaluable tool in our social toolkit. It is perfectly ordinary to be anxious to be without it, since so much of our social connectedness today is contained in it.
Anxiety related to smartphone use is neither a good nor a bad thing — it’s just the way things are today. Different people have different communication preferences, such that “people with high levels of phone use choose this means of communication to enhance their socia relationships over face-to-face communication, whereas those with lower levels of phone use prefer face-to-face communication” (Groarke, 2014).
Older adults may long for a different kind of social connectedness today, much like older adults in the 1920s longed for the horse-drawn carriage. Or grandparents did for “radio times” in the 1960s, when television infiltrated every American household. Twenty years from now, the idea of “smartphone addiction” will be just as quaint.
For More Information
The Fox News article: Are you ‘addicted’ to your smartphone?
Groarke, H. (2014). The Impact of Smartphones on Social Behaviour and Relationships. Thesis.
Pearson, C. & Hussain, Z. (2015). Smartphone Use, Addiction, Narcissism, and Personality: A Mixed Methods Investigation. International Journal of Cyber Behavior, Psychology and Learning, 5, 17-32.
Yildirim, C. (2014). Exploring the dimensions of nomophobia: Developing and validating a questionnaire using mixed methods research. Graduate Theses and Dissertations. Paper 14005.