That's what researchers have been calling that anxious feeling you get when you misplace your cellphone or your phone battery dies. And nomophobia — short for "no mobile phone phobia" — now has a 20-item test so that the frantic WebMDers among us can self-diagnose.
Coming from a pair of researchers at Iowa State University, the quiz asks people to respond to statements such as "If I were to run out of credits or hit my monthly data limit, I would panic" and "If I could not check my smartphone for a while, I would feel a desire to check it."
After trying out their questionnaire on roughly 300 undergrads, the researchers concluded that they had a reliable indicator for signs of nomophobia. "Four dimensions of nomophobia were identified: not being able to communicate, losing connectedness, not being able to access information and giving up convenience," the report reads.
What makes nomophobia such a compelling concept is that it sometimes seems as though most of us suffer from it. America is so hardwired to mobile devices that navigating society without one can be a serious challenge. When was the last time you picked up a physical map?
We know that too much constant exposure to our devices can disrupt our sleep and influence how we drive. Maybe that means all the research on nomophobia is on to something. For many people, that could be scary (society has a real problem!) or validating (if I have it, at least it's a recognized phenomenon!).
But maybe the greatest risk of all may lie in deciding that nomophobia represents an actual medical condition. In fact, critics say, all the research on nomophobia obscures what's ultimately a natural and recurring process: The age-old struggle all societies have had in adapting to new technologies.
We've seen this pattern play out before, according to Robert Weiss, a sex addiction specialist and co-author of the book "Closer Together, Further Apart: The Effect of Technology and the Internet on Parenting, Work and Relationships." When unfamiliar technologies take off, people inevitably ask questions about dependency. These questions are natural and legitimate, but real, clinical addictions — to things such as gambling and sex — only affect about 10 percent to 12 percent of the population, said Weiss. And that figure has remained roughly level both before and after the Internet came along.
"It's insulting to the people who have true addictions and true phobias who need profound help that just because they miss something they're dependent on, that they're then phobic," Weiss said.
So, is smartphone "addiction" really what it sounds like? According to the National Institutes of Health, substance addiction is associated with a steep increase in usage and attempts to seek out the substance. Also, "important social, occupational, or recreational activities are given up or reduced because of use of the substance."
Perhaps you think this sounds like you. But then take a look at the NIH's definition for physical dependence, which is distinct from addiction:
Physical dependence is not equivalent to dependence or addiction, and may occur with the regular (daily or almost daily) use of any substance, legal or illegal, even when taken as prescribed. It occurs because the body naturally adapts to regular exposure to a substance (e.g., caffeine or a prescription drug). When that substance is taken away, symptoms can emerge while the body re-adjusts to the loss of the substance. Physical dependence can lead to craving the drug to relieve the withdrawal symptoms. Drug dependence and addiction refer to substance use disorders, which may include physical dependence but must also meet additional criteria.
Our habitual reliance on Facebook and Google Maps might seem like an addiction. And in casual conversation, the word makes total sense — in the same way that we're "hooked" on "Game of Thrones" or "House of Cards." But it's a step further to posit nomophobia as a disorder.