A study of young adults in Portugal has found that the sense of anxiety and fear some experience when they cannot access their smartphone could be linked to general feelings of isolation and inadequacy.
Ana-Paula Correia, an associate professor at Ohio State University and co-author of the study, said she began researching the topic in 2014 as a professor at Iowa State University. She said that she and her students noticed the number of young adults using their smartphone beyond its initial purpose, which was talking on a phone using a mobile network.
“We were intrigued by that, and we wanted to make some kind of measure to indicate that people are actually stressed when they are not with their smartphone close by or in a situation where it can’t work,” said Correia, who works in Ohio State’s Department of Educational Studies and is director of the university’s Center on Education and Training for Employment.
Skyler Jackim, a senior anthropology major at Ohio State, said the results of this study hit home. She said she feels an immediate sense of dread when her cellphone is not in its usual spot — specifically, her the back left pocket of her jeans.
“I think a lot of people my age can relate to this,” Jackim said. “We do everything on our phones: social media, search on the internet, talk to important people in our lives.”
The connectivity that a smartphone provides is comforting, but Jackim said she depends on her phone for much more than interacting with friends and family members.
“My phone has everything — cellphone numbers I don’t have memorized, bank information, medical records, my entire wallet. I definitely feel like I need it at all times,” Jackim said.
The measure that Correia created became known as the “nomophobia” questionnaire. “Nomophobia,” an abbreviation of the expression no-mobile-phone fear, is a term for the anxiety, discomfort and stress that people suffer when their smartphones are not readily available, according to the study.
The term “nomophobia,” coined in a 2008 study that was commissioned by the U.K. Post Office and conducted by research data and analytics group YouGov, is not recognized as a diagnosis by the American Psychiatric Association.
In 2019, researchers at the Catholic University in Portugal learned of Correia’s “nomophobia” measure and asked her to join their project. This allowed her to extend her initial work as she translated the measure into Portuguese and analyzed the new data collected.
That university study analyzed a sample of 495 Portuguese young adults to determine the relationship between the participants’ smartphone use, sociodemographic characteristics, lifestyle and health.
Participants filled out four questionnaires, and it was determined that those who demonstrated “nomophobia” also exhibited psychopathological symptoms such as obsession-compulsion, hostility and psychoticism.
The study’s findings were published in the most recent issue of Computers in Human Behavior Reports, a scholarly journal that publishes research exploring human computer interactions and the impact of computers on human behavior.
Correia said the results were not necessarily surprising. She said she knows that extreme smartphone use must have consequences.
“We know from daily observations that extreme use of smartphones must come with a price. Isolation, feelings of not being fit or adequate — something will come with it,” Correia said.
Although Correia identified a relationship between obsessive-compulsive behavior and extra smartphone use, the study does not tell the direction or nature of that relationship, she said.
“We cannot say that the smartphone causes obsessive-compulsive behavior or the other way — obsessive-compulsive behavior makes you use your smartphone more often,” Correia said. “Now a next study could be, what is the nature and direction of that relationship.”
Correia said she hopes the results can spur more studies on the topic — for example, research into whether the results vary among age groups. She said she is curious about any relationship between smartphone use and other mental disorders, such as depression and violent behavior.
“I’m not saying we’re going out and going to blame smartphone usage on all these bad things that happen to us psychologically, no,” Correia said. “Smartphone usage brings a lot of benefits to our daily lives as well. But we have to be thoughtful when we use a device to an extreme way — to the point that you cannot function well if you forget your smartphone at home.”