Until a few months ago, 17-year-old SD was hooked to the mobile phone. His parents, both IT professionals in Bengaluru, had given him a phone when he was 11 to track his whereabouts. But over the past couple of years, he had been using it for much more than the customary messages about his schedule and movements. He would spend endless hours chatting, browsing social media, streaming shows and listening to music, besides checking updates on his school assignments. Last year, his parents noticed that whenever he was away from his phone, he just could not focus or concentrate. Soon, he started complaining of feeling sick in school. This would coincide with the days he did not carry the phone.
“His parents realized the need for help after noticing a drastic decline in his studies some months ago,” says Manoj Sharma, professor of clinical psychology, SHUT (Service for Healthy Use of Technology) Clinic, at the National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro-Sciences (Nimhans), Bengaluru. But it’s only when they visited Sharma at the digital detox clinic that SD’s parents realized their only child had a condition known as nomophobia.
Nomophobia, or no mobile phone phobia, describes “a psychological condition when people have a fear of being detached from mobile phone connectivity”, notes a study co-authored by Sudip Bhattacharya, Md Abu Bashar, Abhay Srivastava and Amarjeet Singh, and published in the Journal Of Family Medicine And Primary Care in April 2019.
Covid-19 has exacerbated the condition, with both adults and children glued to the screen for meetings and online classes. But there isn’t enough awareness of it. “We have just started to address it in the scientific academic space,” says Radhika Bapat, a Pune-based clinical psychologist.
It was only in 2019-20 that nomophobia was labelled a public health problem.“Earlier, it used to be diagnosed as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder with addiction. But now a lot more parents have started seeking counselling for their children.”
As the April 2019 study states, it is still difficult to differentiate whether a person has become nomophobic due to mobile phone addiction or whether existing anxiety disorders are manifesting as nomophobic symptoms. The complexity of the condition is a challenge for family members as well as for physicians, though research into it is gaining traction.
Doctors have observed nomophobia more in the 16-21 age group, and the primary cause is easy access to a device. “Second is the acknowledgement young people receive in the online world,” says Sharma. “This reinforces the desire to continue. And also the anonymity that the medium offers. It provides the opportunity to experience a lot of things anonymously. This has made technology, particularly gadgets, a part of their lifestyle.” Peer pressure also contributes to obsession with a device.
The device almost becomes a determination of one’s identity, with the screen offering a sense of comfort. According to Bapat, one feels a sense of fear, anxiety and discomfort unless one has access to the device, or even the charger. There is a fear of not being able to communicate, not having immediate access to information, and not being able to connect to the Wi-Fi. “There is also a fear of being deprived of the comfort that a mobile phone provides in a social situation. If people tend to leave you out of the group, you just walk away, deciding to connect with someone online,” she adds.
Nomophobia could lead to anxiety, trembling, agitation and irritation. “It affects occupational functionality. Children feel distressed if they can’t play a game,” explains Sharma. There is a feeling of losing control over one’s life.
There are some simple ways to find out if a person is nomophobic: He or she could neglect priorities and urgent chores to stay online, lose sleep, wake at odd hours to check messages, or turn into a recluse.
“We do mindful interventions and encourage more interpersonal contact offline. Take up a hobby or a sport. Switch off the phone when not working. And most importantly, seek the right kind of help,” says Sharma.