Nomophobia: The Fear of Being Without Your Phone

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In This Article

Mobile phones have become a ubiquitous part of modern life. Not only do they serve as a way to communicate, but they also act as a social network tool, personal organizer, online shopping tool, calendar, alarm clock, and mobile bank. While they are without a doubt beneficial devices, some suggest that overreliance on digital devices may be a form of behavioral addiction.

In fact, the term nomophobia was coined fairly recently to describe the fear of being without your phone. This includes not just losing, forgetting, or breaking your phone, but also being outside of mobile phone contact. It is a growing concern in a world where always being connected seems more important than ever before. When people lose their phone, when their mobile runs out of battery, or when they are in an area with no cellular coverage, it can lead to feelings of stress and anxiety—or even feelings of fear or panic.

This fear of being without a mobile device is often considered a sign of problematic digital device use, which some experts believe may have a detrimental impact on mental health and well-being.

Frequent mobile phone use has the potential to cause short-term negative outcomes such as increased distraction, but it may also have long-term consequences such as exacerbating existing mental health issues or contributing to behavioral addictions.

What Is Nomophobia?

Have you ever found yourself getting anxious or even panicked when you couldn't find your phone? Does the thought of being stranded in an isolated place with no cellular service fill you with a sense of dread? If so, you just might have some of the symptoms of nomophobia.

Nomophobia is an abbreviated form of "no-mobile-phone phobia." The term was first coined in a 2008 study that was commissioned by the UK Postal Office. In a sample of more than 2,100 adults, the study indicated that 53% of participants experienced nomophobia. The condition is characterized by feelings of anxiety when people lose their phones, run out of battery life, or have no cellular coverage.

The study revealed that this fear can be so powerful that many people never turn off their phones, even at night or during times that they won't be using their devices. When asked why they never turn off their phones, 55% cited a need to keep in touch with family and friends, 10% said they needed to be contactable for work reasons, and 9% reported that turning off their phones made them anxious.

The fear of missing out on something is perhaps what leads so many people to report that they would respond to a call or text even if they are in the middle of something else. The study revealed that people were often willing to interrupt life activities in order to respond to a call. The majority of people (80%) were willing to answer a call while watching television, 40% would respond to a call while eating a meal, and 18% would be willing to answer the phone when they were in bed with another person.

How Common Is It?

While the research on the phenomenon is still limited, the available findings suggest that nomophobia is quite common. One study of students in India found that more than 22% of participants showed signs of severe nomophobia. Around 60% of those who took part in the study had moderate signs of the condition.

Symptoms

A phobia is a type of anxiety disorder that is characterized by an irrational fear of an object or situation. In this instance, the fear is of being without a phone or being out of the reach of cell phone service.

While nomophobia is not a clinical diagnosis, some of the symptoms that are commonly identified as related to this fear include:

  • The inability to turn off your phone
  • Constantly checking your phone for missed messages, emails, or calls
  • Charging your battery even when your phone is almost fully charged
  • Taking your phone with you everywhere you go, even into the bathroom
  • Repeatedly checking to make sure that you have your phone
  • Fear of being without Wifi or being able to connect to a cellular data network
  • Worrying about negative things happening and not being able to call for help
  • Stress over being disconnected from one’s online presence or identity
  • Skipping activities or planned events in order to spend time on the mobile device

In addition to emotional and cognitive symptoms, people may also experience physical symptoms as well. People might breathe faster, their heart rate may increase, they may sweat more, and may shake or tremble. They may also begin to feel weak or dizzy. In severe cases, these fear symptoms can escalate into a panic attack.

Characteristics of Nomophobia

In a 2015 study, researchers identified some key dimensions of nomophobia. The fear of being without a phone center on:

  • Not being able to communicate with others
  • Feeling generally disconnected
  • Not being able to access information
  • Giving up a convenience

People with this phobia check their phones constantly, take their phones everywhere they go (including the shower and bathroom), spend many hours per day using their phones, and experience feelings of helplessness when they are separated from their phones.

Studies have shown that frequent or compulsive mobile phone use is connected to increased stress, anxiety, and depression. Excessive phone use has been linked to a number of negative effects that include decreased grades, increased anxiety, lower life satisfaction, and a lower sense of overall well-being.

Causes

There are a number of reasons why people experience symptoms of nomophobia.

Usefulness for Daily Tasks

The usefulness of mobile phones plays a key role in this fear of being without one’s phone. Smartphones are capable of doing so much; people use their phones to stay in touch, to research things that are interested in, to conduct business, to stay organized, to share personal information, and even to manage money.

Because people now turn to their phones for so many important tasks, it is perhaps not surprising that people fear being without their devices. Being without your phone can leave people feeling cut off and isolated from important aspects of their life including friends, family, work, finances, and information.

Amount of Use Each Day

A 2014 study published in the Journal of Behavioral Addictions found that college students spend as much as nine hours per day on their cell phones.

Researchers suggest that this constant cell phone use represents a paradox of technology. Smartphones can be both freeing and oppressing. People are able to communicate, gather information, and socialize, but at the same time cell phone use can lead to dependence that is both restricting and stress-inducing.

Familiarity With Technology

The National Institute on Drug Abuse for Teens suggests that this cell phone separation anxiety may be more common in teens and young adults. Young people in this age cohort are mostly digital natives, meaning they were born and brought up in the age of digital technology. Because they had early experience with computers, the internet, and cell phones, these devices are often an integral part of daily life.

Diagnosis

It is important to note that while many people report feeling anxiety or fear about being without their phones, nomophobia is not officially recognized as a disorder by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).

This type of fear may meet the criteria for a situational specific phobia depending on the symptoms and presentation. A specific phobia is characterized by an unreasonable and excessive fear and an exaggerated fear response that is out of proportion to the actual threat.

Researchers have developed the Nomophobia Questionnaire (NMP-Q) to assess symptoms of nomophobia, and studies suggest that the questionnaire is a useful measure of the fear of being without a cell phone.

The questionnaire asks respondents to rate how strongly they agree or disagree with statements such as:

  • "I would feel uncomfortable without constant access to information through my smartphone"
  • "Running out of battery in my smartphone would scare me" 
  • "I would feel anxious because I could not keep in touch with my family and/or friends"

One study found that higher levels of nomophobia as measured by the NMP-Q corresponded to higher levels of obsessiveness, suggesting the nomophobia may have a high level of comorbidity with some disorders. For example, some other research suggests that people with anxiety and panic disorders may be more likely to develop nomophobia.

Treatment

If you have symptoms of nomophobia or if you feel like your mobile phone use is causing problems in your life, talking to a mental health professional can help. While there is no specific treatment for nomophobia, your therapist may recommend exposure therapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy, or both to address your symptoms. In some instances, your doctor may also prescribe some type of medication to address symptoms of anxiety or depression that you might be experiencing.

Exposure Therapy

Exposure therapy is a behavioral technique in which you will learn to gradually face your fears. In the case of nomophobia, you will progressively get used to going without your phone. You might start very small (like leaving your phone in another room for a certain amount of time) and then progressively work your way up to longer periods of time without your phone (such as leaving it home while you go to the store or turning it off while you are busy doing something else).

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is a process that involves addressing the negative and irrational thought patterns that contribute to maladaptive behaviors. Your therapist will help you learn to identify these ways of thinking and replace these thoughts with more realistic and rational ones.

For example, rather than thinking that you are going to miss out on something of vital importance if you don’t check your phone for messages every few minutes, CBT will help remind you that you aren’t likely to miss anything as long as you check your phone occasionally.

Medications

While there is no FDA-approved medication for the treatment of nomophobia, your doctor or psychiatrist may prescribe anti-anxiety medications or antidepressants to address some of your symptoms. Selective-serotonin reuptake inhibitors such as Lexapro, Zoloft, and Paxil are often used as first-line treatments for anxiety and depression.

Coping

If you think you have nomophobia or feel that you are spending too much time on your phone, there are things that you can do to better manage your device use. 

  • Set boundaries. Establish rules for your personal device use. This might mean avoiding your mobile device at certain times of the day, such as during meals or at bedtime.
  • Find a balance. It can be all-to-easy to use your phone to avoid face-to-face contact with other people. Focus on getting some personal interaction with others every day.
  • Take short breaks. It can be tough to break the mobile phone habit, but starting small can make the transition easier. Start by doing small things such as leaving your phone in another room during meals or when you are engaged in another activity.
  • Find other ways to occupy your time. If you find that you are using your phone excessively out of boredom, try looking for other activities to distract you from your device. Try reading a book, going for a walk, playing a sport, or engaging in a hobby that you enjoy.

A Word From Verywell

Nomophobia is a growing problem along with other fears and behavioral addictions tied to technology use. Given how reliant many people are on their mobile phones for work, school, news, entertainment, and social connectedness, it can be an incredibly difficult problem to overcome.

Stopping cell phone use entirely is not realistic, but learning how to set limits and boundaries on how much you allow your phone to control your life can help. Taking an occasional break from your phone, engaging in activities separate from your phone, and finding distractions to keep you busy rather than mindlessly playing on your phone are all good places to start.

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Article Sources

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