We all joke around about being “addicted” to our smartphones, but is there real science to it? An upcoming study suggests that “nomophobia,” or the fear of being without your mobile device, may be a measurable behavioral disorder.
In a study slated for the August edition of Computers in Human Behavior, researchers at Iowa State University first asked nine undergraduate students questions about their smartphone use and identified four dimensions that may point to nomophobia, a non-clinical diagnosis meaning “no-mobile-phone-phobia.” Those dimensions were: not being able to communicate, losing connectedness, not being able to access information and giving up convenience.
“What I came across is that as we become more and more dependent on our smartphones, we become less connected to our friends and family— and I realized the dependency seems to mitigate the quality of communication, so that was my first hypothesis,” study author Caglar Yildirim, a doctoral student in Iowa State’s Human Computer Interaction Program, told FoxNews.com.
Next, 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.
“We are working on identifying the nomophobic students and what other psychological factors may play a role in young adults’ proclivity to nomophobia,” said Yildirim, who noted his team’s findings were preliminary.
Yildirim’s research is only the latest in a string of similar studies and surveys conducted over the past decade to analyze smartphone dependence. Research published in the March 2015 edition of the International Journal of Cyber Behaviour, Psychology and Learning suggests smartphone overuse can have an adverse impact on psychological well-being, a finding that compelled the researchers to advise technology manufacturers to include warning labels that their products may be addictive.
A 2012 study by authentication developer SecurEnvoy suggested 66 percent of 1,000 British adults suffered from nomophobia, a 13 percent increase from 2008. And 2013 study, conducted by Harris Interactive for the mobile company Jumio, found that among about 1,100 American adults who are smartphone users, 9 percent reported using their cellphones during sex, 33 percent on a dinner date, 55 percent while driving, 12 percent in the shower, and 19 percent in a place of worship.
Is smartphone ‘addiction’ real?
Smartphone addiction isn’t a diagnosable condition under the fifth edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, a catalogue of officially recognized mental disorders, but some therapists are beginning to specialize in treating nomophobia.
Research shows smartphone use triggers dopamine, the neurotransmitter responsible for the brain’s reward and pleasure zones— the same chemical released during sex, while eating, and, some studies show, while playing video games. The neurotransmitter has been tied to addiction, but knowing whether you have developed an unhealthy dependence on your smartphone depends on you and your loved ones’ feelings, said John Grohol, founder of online mental health resource Psych Central.
“What we look for is that it’s having a significant negative impact on their ability to do things they do normally every day, like going to work and school, and being able to have a positive relationship in their life … and having friends and seeing them on a regular basis,” Grohol, who received his PhD in psychology from Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., told FoxNews.com. “If people prefer talking to their partners or friends via Facebook or texting, that’s OK— that’s not a disorder. The disorder really happens when the person feels like it’s interfering with their everyday life.”
Grohol likened smartphone dependence to disordered gambling, a recurrent problem that can cause distress in a person’s life when the hobby is practiced in excess. According to the National Center for Responsible Gaming, gambling disorders are prevalent among about 1 percent of American adults.
“I would imagine [smartphone dependence], if it ever actually became a disorder that’s diagnosable, it would be even less than that. Gambling has a very strong reward system built into it,” Grohol said.
People who feel like they may have an unhealthy dependence on their smartphone can find advice in self-help articles online or seek guidance from a mental health professional who specializes in general behavioral disorders, Grohol said.
“I think it’s fine to seek out someone who says that they’re experienced and have a specific background of training in that area, but I don’t think it’s necessary,” Grohol said. “When you boil these things down, it’s really helping people change a behavior that has become too much of a good thing in their lives.”
Robert Weiss, a clinical trainer and addiction psychotherapist for Elements Behavioral Health, a Long Beach, Calif.-based company that trains treatment providers, argued smartphone dependence may be on the rise, but that using the word “addiction” to describe the phenomenon isn’t accurate.
“I think if people have an addiction, they’re addicted to what the phone delivers,” Weiss, who specializes in counseling patients on intimacy issues and sex addiction, told FoxNews.com. “Sex addicts are addicted to the porn or sexual addictions they get through the phone; gamblers are addicted to the apps they get through the phone; hoarders are addicted to eBay and shopping … that’s not addiction— that’s dependency. Addiction is unhealthy dependency. It’s depending on an object or experience to shift your mood to help you escape and cope.”
Why technology dependence isn't 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. At that point, the disorder was brought on by industrial society and urbanization, especially the introduction of trains.
“One of the cures was to go somewhere nice and unplug from the modern pace of civilization,” said Russell, who compared the phenomenon to modern-day social media or technology fatigue.
While early adopters embraced the Internet, Russell said in the early to mid-1990s, people compared the Internet to Frankenstein, saying, “This could be a very good thing, but it might bring out the worst in us.”
“That fits into the dominant interpretation of this country, which is that we like technology, but there’s also been backlash and a cautious term, saying, ‘This isn’t all good,’ but I don’t think this is a recent thing,” he added.
Arthur Molella, founding director of the Jerome and Dorothy Lemelson Center at the Smithsonian Institution, argued that every technology is a double-edged sword but that the smartphone is particularly powerful. The Lemelson Center is a small division of the Smithsonian that focuses on the research of technology and its role in American history.
“[The smartphone] is an immensely enabling technology, and every technology has some sort of downside. Think of the automobile: You can reel off the pluses and minuses as well as I can,” Molella told FoxNews.com. “With regards to the cellphone, it’s hard to think of a technology that is more pervasive … and that’s because we’re in a communicating world— a connected world— and we’re social animals.”
Weiss said that, ultimately, he believes the primary fear surrounding smartphone addiction can be traced to older generations’ reluctance to accept modern forms of communication.
“It is worth people considering that our children are growing up with a different neurological development than we did,” said Weiss, who is 54. “They’re growing up with multiple devices and using forms of communication before they can even use the language. So who they’re going to be is very different from us; they’re going to have much faster ways of switching to one topic to another. In some ways, relationships are like that for young people, which is they’re not as deep and vertical but horizontal.”