When we think of phobias, our first thoughts invariably turn to spiders and clowns. Such phobias can be either easy to manage (avoid the circus) or considerably impact the way a person lives (avoid Australia).
In other words, averting the excessive or irrational fear that defines a phobia can change human behaviour, and for 99.2% of Australian smartphone owners, the fear of being without a mobile phone is entrenching the device even further into their lives.
Nomophobia (a portmanteau of “no mobile phone phobia”) is a social/situational disorder that refers to the discomfort and anxiety caused by the absence of one’s device. The condition is divided into four factors:
- Not being able to communicate.
- Losing connectedness.
- Not being able to access information.
- Giving up convenience.
If COVID-19 has taught us anything, it’s that we’ve come to rely on the convenience with which our smartphones facilitate connection, maintain a sense of belonging, and provide access to information. Now even more so, the device is always on, and always on us.
Our research is the first to measure levels of nomophobia among smartphone owners in Australia. Although the study was conducted before the pandemic, the results demonstrate a huge proportion of the population has some form of nomophobia.
While 48.7% of Australian smartphone owners fall within the average of moderate nomophobia, and 37.3% experience only mild symptoms, 13.2% of smartphone users experience severe nomophobia, with women and younger people more likely to report higher levels.
The prevalence and psychosocial characteristics of the condition led to a proposal for its inclusion into the new Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V). However, pathologising the need to be with a smartphone may overlook what is the development of a complex socio-technical phenomenon.
More than a device of convenience
The fear of being without one’s device only tells half the story.
For some, smartphones provide more than mere convenience; the devices are a lifeline to an otherwise disconnected, isolated existence. For others, it may merely be habituated into daily routines, or it functions as an essential tool to facilitate positive experiences. Or, indeed, the nature of one’s use may be indicative of a more serious psychiatric condition such as obsessive compulsiveness, social anxiety, or addiction.
Notwithstanding nomophobia’s epidemiological designation, our research is unique in that it asks if the psychological condition can cause real-world harm.
In “Nomophobia: Is the fear of being without a smartphone associated with problematic use?“, we show how more time spent with a smartphone increases the likelihood of nomophobia, which in turn increases the likelihood of problematic use.
Problematic smartphone use occurs when the digital takes precedence to the detriment of the physical. This can manifest as dependency, such as excessive habitual use or a sense of loss without the device; prohibited use, such as use when it’s forbidden to do so; and dangerous use, such as while crossing a road or driving.
Our study shows that, when compared to someone without nomophobia, those moderate in nomophobia are 7.7 times more likely to engage in dependent use, 4.2 times more likely to engage in prohibited use, and 5.3 times more likely to engage in dangerous use. For those with severe nomophobia, dangerous use is 14 times more likely.
Across all problematic behaviours, younger phone users were most at risk, while males were more likely to engage in prohibited and dangerous use. Indeed, men were nearly twice as likely as women to put themselves or others at risk with their smartphone use. As such, in addition to its psychological impact, having a fear of being without your smartphone can increase the likelihood of risky, deviant, or illegal behaviour.
Mobile phone use and driving
This finding informed the second stage of our research, where we sought to determine if a relationship exists between the factors of nomophobia and a growing global safety concern – illegal smartphone use while driving.
In Victoria, illegal smartphone use while driving is on the rise. Our research found 37.1% of road users engaged with their device during the past month in a manner their licences do not permit. Such behaviours decrease driving performance and increase crash risk.
We found that road users engaging in illegal smartphone use had significantly higher nomophobia scores across all four factors when compared to law-abiders.
Additionally, 64.7% of probationary drivers – a cohort young people are more likely to populate – engaged in illegal use, compared to 33.4% of full licence-holders. Interestingly, 28.6% of illegal users didn’t know the smartphone law pertaining to their licence. Indeed, this increased the likelihood of illegal use by 84%.
Across all problematic behaviours, younger phone users were most at risk, while males were more likely to engage in prohibited and dangerous use.
Of the four factors of nomophobia, the desire for access to information was significantly associated with illegal use. This means that, regardless of one’s total nomophobia severity level, an increase in factor three resulted in a greater likelihood of illegal use. This finding is the first to uncover a significant relationship between the phobia and illegal smartphone use in Australia.
While New South Wales rolls out mobile phone detection cameras – with other Australian states expected to follow suit – smartphone users continue turning to the device for fear of being without. Increasing the certainty of apprehension will undoubtedly increase the certainty of revenue. However, changing the behaviour of 37.1% of Australian road users may require something in addition to bolstering classical deterrence mechanisms.
As our results demonstrate, problematic smartphone behaviours indicate an inability to be without one’s device. Interventions must consider the unique function and role the device plays in an individual’s environment, and develop an approach aimed towards enriching the experience of being without a mobile phone.
As with drink-driving behaviour-change programs aimed at identifying why one drinks, nomophobia and the risks associated with smartphone use while driving compel a similar mental health approach.
Nomophobia can reduce the immediacy, potency, and rewards associated with embodiment in meatspace.
The inability to experience moments without inevitably turning to our device retards psychosocial development and offline bonds, fostering instead a dependency on being perpetually digitally available in order to gain that which we seek in our physical realities – a sense of belonging, connectedness, and information.
Not to mention smiles – and who doesn’t like smiles?
PhD Candidate, BehaviourWorks, Monash Sustainable Development Institute
Fareed’s current research focuses on smartphone behaviour and illegal smartphone use while driving. While undertaking a masters in literature, he worked as a freelance writer covering contemporary tattoo and body modification rituals and practices. His work is available here: www.the4thwall.net.