“Nomophobia” is a word coined by Patrick O’Neill, a British postal clerk, in 2008 to describe smartphone separation anxiety. It is an acronym for “no-mobile-phone phobia”. Smartphones were a news back then, but people already started to display strange behaviors. O’Neill was shocked to see how inseparable people grew from their phones, not leaving them behind even while visiting the bathroom. He became an activist, trying to attract attention to this problem. Almost a decade later, instead of wearing off, this phenomenon only grew in scale.
A whole new generation was born into the digital world, and while growing up, today’s teens have been enriching the word “nomophobia” with new meanings. The concept is strongly connected to another phenomenon, “fear of missing out” or “fomo”, which means that teens are afraid of losing connectivity and missing on something exciting. According to the Pew Research Internet Study, 34% of teenagers say they go online “almost constantly.” More and more adolescents take a shower with their phones, while producers of gadget oblige with water-resistant models. Teenagers are unwilling to let go of their smartphones even when they sleep: 84% of them sleep with, next to or on top of their cell phones.
There is no doubt that the notorious dependence of teens on their mobile devices is a problem. Are the newest technologies to blame, or is the issue deeper? There are several reasons why teenagers are so attached to their phones.
Technology is natural for them
Think how casual this ability to stay in touch 24/7 is for our children, who grew up with smartphones in their hands. It never was fantastic to them. They think it is natural because they do not know the world before anyone who wanted to reach you could just text “Hello!” They see it as an inherent part of their lives, they depend on it, they count on it to look up the necessary information or to be available for friends and family should they need to contact them. You can think of this ability to communicate at a distance as another sense. Now imagine, that you have lost your voice and you aren’t able to speak. Would you feel lost? Would you feel anxious if you knew that your ability to speak could be depleted by the end of the day? Would you check you “voice resource” every hour? You probably would.
Our brain always seeks information
Before the mobile era, what would you do on a long bus ride? At breakfast? In the evening before going to bed? Probably, you would read a book or a newspaper. Alternatively, you would be doodling or chatting with people around you or solving a crossword. Watching TV, at last.
The fact is, teens do all these things on their phones. They do the same as we used to, only the tool is different. Yes, sometimes they pay no attention to the world around them, so did many of us when they were 12 and reading an interesting book. We would ride past our station because the reading was so absorbing, we would watch TV at the dinner table. If there were no book or TV, we would read what was written on a box of cookies over and over. Our brain is hungry for information, entertainment and engagement. Standing in line or waiting if you have arrived at the designated place too early is boring to tears, and that is when our smartphones come to the rescue. Our mobile devices are inexhaustible sources of cognitive stimuli, and studies show, that in the terms of the acquisition and retention of information, our brains treat our devices like relationship partners.
Parents do not walk the talk
As long as cognitive stimulation feels rewarding to of all mere humans, no wonder adults as well are addicted to technology, which provides it. Our children learn from what we do, not from what we say. As they are growing up, they see us, glued to those glowing little screens, texting, reading news or even putting an important meeting to our calendar at the dinner table or during family outings. Can we blame them for the addiction to their own devices?
Ways to fight nomophobia
Despite the proposals were made to list nomophobia in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the fact is, it is not a physical addiction or an actual disorder, but rather a lack of moderation and self-discipline, resulting in an excessive and harmful use of mobile devices. Therefore, another extreme of separating your teen from their phone altogether is not advisable. After all, it is only a mean of communication, and keeping contact with the peers and building a social network is a primary task for every teenager, an evolutionary necessity, so to speak. So, what can you do?
• Define the rules
Instead, it is better to introduce a set of clear regulations regarding the usage of mobile devices. The paramount rule is no mobile in bed. A smartphone in the bedroom leads to chronic sleep deprivation, due to incoming texts and instant messages at an ungodly hour, compulsive gaming and emission of blue light from the screen, which stimulates our brain and prevents us from feeling drowsy. The best way to do it is to create a family hub to charge smartphones overnight. Before going to sleep, family members should “check in” their phones. Other rules may regulate the use of mobiles during dinnertime, homework hours, on Sundays, etc., at your discretion.
• Practice what you preach
The key is you must stick to your rules yourself. It means you too should get an alarm clock instead of a smartphone sitting on your bed table. You too should forget about your phone when the whole family is enjoying their meal, etc. Be the one who leads the way, and provide some personal example. Teenagers are very sensitive when it comes to restrictions, especially those they find unfair. They strongly dislike being treated like children, so the best way to make them behave responsibly is to teach them that self-control is a sign of adulthood.
• Digital detox
If your teen cannot leave the phone behind, despite all the restrictions, and keeps sneaking it in the bedroom, you may opt to block their phone for the night, rendering it useless. In order to do so, you can try some mobile monitoring features (there are many Android and iOS apps for that), which also allow blocking particularly addictive or dangerous apps that pose a threat to your teen’s emotional health.
Technology makes our life more dynamic, convenient and safe. As always, the key is moderation. If you are concerned that you loved ones won’t be able to reach you, when you see the battery in your smartphone is dying, it is natural. If you feel frustrated and start panicking seeing it running low, that is probably, a clear case of nomophobia and you should benefit from the advice above.