It happens to everyone and it can be a source of deep anxiety—they reach for their cellphone and discover their pocket is empty. If you feel lost and anxious without your cellphone, you are definitely not alone. A recent study found the widespread and almost obsessive reliance on cellphones among teens and young adults is more pervasive than previously thought:
- Nearly 95 percent of teens access the Internet daily with their cellphones. Roughly one quarter of that 95 percent say they remain online almost constantly.
- Half of all teens admit to feeling addicted to their cellphone
- Half of all Americans say they sleep with their cellphone “lying next to them in bed.”
This trend is so pervasive that it now has a name: “fear of being offline” (or FOBO). FOBO refers to the feelings of anxiety and even panic that someone might experience when they aren’t able to access the Internet. When a person is specifically fearful of losing access to their cellphone, the term used for this fear is “nomophobia,” or NO MObile PHone PhoBIA.
Causes and Signs of FOBO
The precise definition of nomophobia is the “fear of being detached from mobile phone connectivity.” In other words, someone with nomophobia could be holding their cellphone but still feel anxious if they can’t connect to the Internet.
Research has found that several psychological factors contribute to the development of nomophobia—low self-esteem, existing anxiety disorders, and an extroverted personality.
Signs of nomophobia typically develop within minutes of being unable to access the Internet with a cellphone. They can include:
- Anxiety/agitation/panic attack
- Fast heartbeat (tachycardia)
- Feeling disoriented or confused
Psychologists who study FOBO and nomophobia have noted several traits common to individuals who become addicted to technology. One characteristic is a preoccupation with receiving immediate gratification for emotional needs. For example, someone with low self-esteem posts a picture of themselves on Instagram but uses filters to refine the picture. Once the picture is posted, they may check for comments and likes every few minutes to gratify their need for validation.
Other people with FOBO develop abnormal attachments to social media users whom they have never met in person. Fear of being offline can develop after someone becomes intimately involved with a social media user and believes they have met their “soul mate.”
People who are more prone to technology addiction may have undiagnosed personality and mental disorders that compel them to remain anonymous while interacting with people who do not know them personally. Social anxiety disorder, agoraphobia, lack of self-esteem, and body dysmorphic disorder are a few issues that can facilitate FOBO.
In its more severe forms, unaddressed FOBO can cause chronic unemployment, insomnia, health issues, and depression. When someone with FOBO withdraws from family and friends because they prefer interacting with people on social media sites, they could become agoraphobic, develop an eating disorder, or turn to drugs to deal with underlying mental health problems associated with FOBO.
Depending on the severity of FOBO, the inability to resist cell phone use for even a few hours a day can dramatically affect the quality of their life. Arguments, resentment, and deep rifts with people who really care about them may occur, causing the person with FOBO to retreat even further into their cell phone addiction.
What to Do When a Phone Attachment Is Causing Problems
Since an attachment to one’s phone can interfere with life and cause significant problems, it’s important to know how to address the issue. First, consider your patterns of phone use by asking questions like:
- Do you walk around your home carrying your cell phone at all times?
- Do you check your cell phone every 10 minutes for new texts?
- Is your cell phone lying next to your plate at every meal?
- When you dine out with family members or friends, are you looking down at your cell phone more than at the people in front of you?
- Does the idea of being without your cell phone for one hour make you anxious?
Answers to these types of questions can provide more insight into what behaviors and habits need to be addressed first.
Managing FOBO also means setting healthy boundaries and sticking to them. One example of a healthy boundary might be leaving the phone in a purse or pocket during a social event and not taking the phone out until the event is over.
Try not to look at your cell phone after you have gone to bed. If you wake up in the middle of the night, do not turn on your phone. Instead, read a book, take a potty break, or sit in a chair in the dark and look out a window until you feel sleepy.
Cut down on the number of hours you spend on your cell phone. Restrict cell phone use from 8:00 am to 9:00 am and don’t check your phone until noon. Try to stay off the phone until 3:00 pm. Give yourself time to answer texts or social media messages. Once you are finished, turn off your phone for several hours, or until you start feeling nervous.
When you can’t resist the urge to check your phone, ask yourself these questions:
- What will I be missing if I don’t check my phone?
- Will I be “forgotten” on my social media accounts if I’m not on 24/7?
- Do the people whom I interact with on social media really care about me as a real person?
When FOBO has become unmanageable on one’s own, it may be time to consult a licensed mental health professional. They may be able to provide some cognitive and behavioral strategies for addressing compulsive phone checking and the anxious thoughts that trigger it. Sometimes a therapist may recommend lifestyle changes and/or coping tools like breathing techniques or meditation.
In many cases of FOMO, a mental health condition is the operative root issue that needs to be treated first—in which case, a consultation is an important first step and FHE Health’s team of compassionate counselors may be able to help. They are available 24/7. Please reach out to us anytime at (833) 596-3502.