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Where's my mobile?

Nomophobia, the fear of being out of mobile phone contact, is on the rise

Sapna K, a 19-year-old history student, would log onto social networking sites from her smartphone in between classes. Slowly, her need to check her phone turned into a craving. Did someone comment on her Facebook post? Did she miss out on a WhatsApp message? Why hadn't her phone buzzed in the past hour or so? She would sleep with the phone under her pillow and check her messages in the middle of the night. Her obsessive attachment to the phone began to interfere with her daily chores and mental peace.

"One day she left her phone at a friend's party. She felt anxious the entire time that she reached home and insisted that her father immediately walk back to the friend's house to pick it up," says Manoj Kumar Sharma, additional professor (department of clinical psychology) at Bengaluru's NIMHANS. He is, at the moment, taking care of at least 60 cases in which the patient is suffering from anxiety related to losing the mobile phone.

What is nomophobia?

This rising obsessive attachment with the phone and the resulting anxiety has prompted medical practitioners to finally christen this behaviour. It's called nomophobia. Although it is not yet listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, it finds a mention in the appendix for further research. Listed or not, medical practitioners maintain that nomophobia is very much a reality - one that is growing to gargantuan proportions.

"Nomophobia literally means 'no mobile' phobia; that is the fear of being out of mobile phone contact," mentions a study conducted by the department of community medicine at Indore's MGM College. This survey studied mobile phone dependence among medical students under 25 years of age.  It observed that when the respondent was in an area of no network or had run out of balance or battery, he or she tended to feel anxious and this adversely affected the concentration levels. "I have seen nomophobia affect children as young as 11 years old right up to adults in the age group of 40 to 50," says Sameer Malhotra, director (department of mental health and behavioural sciences), Max Healthcare. He has seen a drastic rise in the numbers afflicted from mobile phone obsession in the past couple of years with numbers running into hundreds.

Such is this obsession that it can destroy marriages and create rifts in families. Ramesh Vats, 32, and his wife, Urmila, had been married for three years and were parents to a toddler. From the outside their lives seemed perfect. Yet, not a word was exchanged between them at home. Ramesh would either be busy at work or would spend the entire night sending Whatsapp messages or checking social networking sites. It was taking a toll on the marriage. "Finally, a member of the extended family intervened and got them to me. On further assessment, we found out that this discord was an indirect manifestation of his obsession with the phone," says Delhi-based clinical psychologist Amitabh Saha.

Young children and teenagers are even more vulnerable to this affliction as they force their parents to buy expensive smartphones and tablets out of peer pressure. Saha recalls the case of a couple of school children who would exchange notes at night on WhatsApp. Just before the exams, their parents banned the use of the mobile phone. "As a result of this, none of them could concentrate on his studies and would be irritable and aggressive through the day," he says.

Samir Parikh
Samir Parikh, director, Fortis Healthcare
Clinical psychologists have come up with a list of signs and symptoms that you need to watch out for:
  • Are you neglecting your priorities? "If your phone is becoming enmeshed with your being in an intrusive way, you should immediately step back and assess your behaviour," says Samir Parikh, (above) director (mental health and behavioural sciences), Fortis Healthcare. For instance, if you can't concentrate on your chores just because you missed a call or because someone has not got in touch with you, then that should act as a wakeup call.
  • Are you missing out on sleep? "People have a tendency to check their phones at odd hours, as a result of which their sleep pattern gets affected. They don't even get six hours of sleep," says Saha. This adversely affects their health and performance at work.
  • Are you constantly irritated and restless? "Ask yourself if your restlessness is due to being away from your phone for brief periods. If it's leading to distress and dysfunction then do something quickly about it," says Malhotra.
  • Are you turning into a recluse? "The phone becomes such a source of connectivity with the world that if it's not there then a person suffers from loneliness and often depression. The interpersonal interaction with peers goes down," says Sharma.
  • The patient is made to understand that he needs to control technology and not be controlled by it
  • Sleep patterns are assessed and a schedule is drawn up to correct it
  • Offline contact is promoted. Some like Sharma encourage Internet fasting, which involves being away from the phone for a couple of hours every day. The patient is then counseled on the distress quotient
  • The person suffering from nomophobia is encouraged to take up a physical sport or engage in a hobby. The idea is to convince him or her that life without a phone is possible.
  • The patient is advised to focus on the essential chores of the day. Stretching exercises are introduced to improve concentration. Anytime that you feel the urge to touch the phone, just stretch your hands and neck for five minutes
  • Most importantly, the patient must switch off their phone when not at work

Sameer Malhotra
Sameer Malhotra, Max Healthcare
Once you have asked the right questions, it's time to seek the right help. It's wise to visit practitioners who have had experience in dealing with anxiety resulting from the overuse of technology. For instance, based on the feedback from focus group discussion, NIMHANS has started SHUT Clinic, or Service for Healthy Use of Technology. Drawing faculty from departments of clinical psychology, psychiatry, psychiatric social work and epidemiology, the clinic aims at raising awareness about the excessive use of technology, training of counselors and developing timely intervention.

Prior experience will help clinical psychologists to ask the right kind of questions. For instance, if a person has sought help for anxiety or depression, the psychologist will need to identify if use of mobile phone is one of the co-morbid factors leading up to this. "Usually people don't come to us directly for nomophobia. It's up to us to figure out that it's one of the many factors leading to this mental state and then treat accordingly," says Saha. Max Healthcare's Malhotra (left) concurs: "We need to assess if there is an underlying medical condition such as obsessive compulsive disorder that is behind this overuse of the phone or a deranged lifestyle that is responsible. Then one can decide if there is need for correction or medical intervention," he says.




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