Hung up on phone fear

By Emily Fasold

Until recently, spiders, death and public speaking were thought to be the things humans were most afraid of. But a new U.K. survey suggests that nomophobia, the fear of losing or being away from one’s mobile device, is the most common concern.

British mobile security provider SecurEnvoy coined the term after conducting a 1,000–person survey that showed nearly two-thirds of respondents experience anxiety when separated from their cell phones.

Respondents in the 18–24 age bracket showed the highest rate of nomophobia, with 77 percent citing an extreme fear of losing their cellular devices. As populations age, rates of nomophobia decrease. Gender also plays a role, with men being 9 percent more likely than women to be nomophobic.

The condition is on the rise, up 13 percent from just four years ago as more people are depending on their smartphones for communication, Internet, directions and entertainment.

“I don’t necessarily think this is a problem,” said SecurEnvoy co-founder Steve Watts. “The majority of people just care about their belongings. Nomophobes are people who take this to the extreme.”

The climbing rate of nomophobia makes sense to Mark Shepherd, a psychologist who specializes in phobias. He said anxieties about losing phones can be severe, especially for younger people who have had cell phones for most of their lives.

“The fact that cell phones have become so prevalent so quickly is a big deal,” Shepherd said. “It’s certainly understandable

that so many people are having anxiety about them.”

Psychologist Stephen Mayville said “phone anxiety” is becoming increasingly common because phones are more expensive and provide more functions than older models.

“These days, you lose much more than a phone,” Mayville said. “You also lose all of these other things that can serve important daily functions.”

The condition is not formally recognized in the U.S., and many mental health experts are skeptical about the survey’s results and the condition’s validity.

Mayville said he suspects that the surveyors did not ask respondents questions that could establish an actual phobia. He also said because of its commonality, “nomophobia” could not be considered a phobia at all.

“If 66 percent of the population had a phobia and experienced clinically significant distress, then happiness statistics would be in the toilet and misery would be normal,” he said.

Watts said he and his colleagues were surprised that the survey sparked an international psychological debate.

The company is best known for inventing “tokenless authentication,” a technology that allows people to have passcode locks on their cell phones. Watts said they simply wanted to find out how well phone users were protecting their devices and did not intend to make any psychological discoveries.

“I think it’s amazing how much interest this has seen,” he said. “What started as a simple survey to find out how people are securing their phones turned into something quite interesting.”