Separation from our mobiles impacts our cognitive, emotional and physiological wellbeing. Image: Getty.
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Can't survive without your phone? You could be suffering from nomophobia

Our smartphones are fast becoming extensions of ourselves. So what happens when we're separated from them?

You could be one of the millions of people suffering from Nomophobia (or, as it’s also known, Smartphone Separation Anxiety). It’s the pathological fear, anxiety, or discomfort associated with being without your mobile phone. In other words, it’s the sheer panic that descends the moment you suspect that you’ve accidentally left it at home. Or that sinking feeling of despair when it’s on 1 per cent charge. And the sense of relief when someone offers you a charger.

The findings from last years Deloitte Mobile Consumer Survey showed that of the 35 million smartphone owners in the UK, one in six looks at their phone more than 50 times a day. Nearly a third reach for their smartphones within five minutes of waking up (not including turning off the alarm). And I reluctantly admit that I fall into the 11 per cent of people that scroll through their smartphones immediately after waking up.

Smartphones have morphed into “physical extensions of ourselves”, and separation from our mobiles could have a significant impact on our cognitive, emotional and physiological wellbeing. This is according to a study published in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, which aimed to investigate the psychological and physiological changes in participants when they were separated from their smartphones and prevented from answering them.

The research team from the University of Missouri asked forty participants to complete various cognitive tasks, once with their smartphones in their possession and once without. As predicted, the results of the study showed that when the participants were separated from their smartphones it resulted in poor cognitive performance, increased blood pressure, increased heart rate, and greater levels of self-reported anxiety.

Their findings supported the Extended Self Theory, a concept formulated by marketing professor Russell Belk. The theory proposes that “an individual’s possessions, whether knowingly or unknowingly, intentionally or unintentionally, can become an extension of one’s self”. In other words, when we exercise power over our possessions, in the same way in which we would control our limbs, for example, eventually the external object is viewed as part of our self.  In line with this theory, the research team suggests that when a person loses a close possession, like a smartphone, it should be viewed as a “loss or lessening of self”.

This is not entirely surprising. Nowadays smartphones are more than just gadgets, they are ever-present aspects of our daily lives. Our mobile phones are like portable windows to the outside world, providing us with instant access to vast amounts of information, and a sense of connection to our social circles.

However, one of the limitations of this study is its small sample size, and so the results may not be very representative in terms of the wider population. However, the research team concludes that subsequent research should aim to investigate whether “other technological devices are capable of becoming incorporated into the extended self”. This could be an important area for future research, especially since the International Data Corporation predicts that there will be more that 2bn “Internet of Things” devices installed by 2020. The Internet of Things – a popular phrase used to describe the technology in which our devices are connected and controlled over the Internet – is growing rapidly. “Smart homes”, in which our washing machines, fridges, smoke detectors and other household appliances are connected up to the internet, constitute a major part of this trend.

Tech companies such as Google have shared their plans to link their devices with appliances in our homes. And earlier this month, Apple launched their smart home platform HomeKit, which will allow a number of products to be controlled by its voice command system Siri. iPhones, iPads and iWatches could be used to dim the lights, determine whether a kitchen window is open, and even detect home air quality.

It’s exciting to see technology advancing in this way. However, the findings of this study raise a number of questions. Are we becoming unhealthily reliant on technology? If so, how can we develop a healthier attachment to our gadgets? Or is this even something to be worried about? Most importantly, since an increasing number of devices are being connected to the Internet, should we also be concerned about the repercussions of humans becoming connected to an increasing number of devices?

John Moore
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The man who created the fake Tube sign explains why he did it

"We need to consider the fact that fake news isn't always fake news at the source," says John Moore.

"I wrote that at 8 o'clock on the evening and before midday the next day it had been read out in the Houses of Parliament."

John Moore, a 44-year-old doctor from Windsor, is describing the whirlwind process by which his social media response to Wednesday's Westminster attack became national news.

Moore used a Tube-sign generator on the evening after the attack to create a sign on a TfL Service Announcement board that read: "All terrorists are politely reminded that THIS IS LONDON and whatever you do to us we will drink tea and jolly well carry on thank you." Within three hours, it had just fifty shares. By the morning, it had accumulated 200. Yet by the afternoon, over 30,000 people had shared Moore's post, which was then read aloud on BBC Radio 4 and called a "wonderful tribute" by prime minister Theresa May, who at the time believed it was a genuine Underground sign. 

"I think you have to be very mindful of how powerful the internet is," says Moore, whose viral post was quickly debunked by social media users and then national newspapers such as the Guardian and the Sun. On Thursday, the online world split into two camps: those spreading the word that the sign was "fake news" and urging people not to share it, and those who said that it didn't matter that it was fake - the sentiment was what was important. 

Moore agrees with the latter camp. "I never claimed it was a real tube sign, I never claimed that at all," he says. "In my opinion the only fake news about that sign is that it has been reported as fake news. It was literally just how I was feeling at the time."

Moore was motivated to create and post the sign when he was struck by the "very British response" to the Westminster attack. "There was no sort of knee-jerk Islamaphobia, there was no dramatisation, it was all pretty much, I thought, very calm reporting," he says. "So my initial thought at the time was just a bit of pride in how London had reacted really." Though he saw other, real Tube signs online, he wanted to create his own in order to create a tribute that specifically epitomised the "very London" response. 

Yet though Moore insists he never claimed the sign was real, his caption on the image - which now has 100,800 shares - is arguably misleading. "Quintessentially British..." Moore wrote on his Facebook post, and agrees now that this was ambiguous. "It was meant to relate to the reaction that I saw in London in that day which I just thought was very calm and measured. What the sign was trying to do was capture the spirit I'd seen, so that's what I was actually talking about."

Not only did Moore not mean to mislead, he is actually shocked that anyone thought the sign was real. 

"I'm reasonably digitally savvy and I was extremely shocked that anyone thought it was real," he says, explaining that he thought everyone would be able to spot a fake after a "You ain't no muslim bruv" sign went viral after the Leytonstone Tube attack in 2015. "I thought this is an internet meme that people know isn't true and it's fine to do because this is a digital thing in a digital world."

Yet despite his intentions, Moore's sign has become the centre of debate about whether "nice" fake news is as problematic as that which was notoriously spread during the 2016 United States Presidential elections. Though Moore can understand this perspective, he ultimately feels as though the sentiment behind the sign makes it acceptable. 

"I use the word fake in inverted commas because I think fake implies the intention to deceive and there wasn't [any]... I think if the sentiment is ok then I think it is ok. I think if you were trying to be divisive and you were trying to stir up controversy or influence people's behaviour then perhaps I wouldn't have chosen that forum but I think when you're only expressing your own emotion, I think it's ok.

"The fact that it became so-called fake news was down to other people's interpretation and not down to the actual intention... So in many interesting ways you can see that fake news doesn't even have to originate from the source of the news."

Though Moore was initially "extremely shocked" at the reponse to his post, he says that on reflection he is "pretty proud". 

"I'm glad that other people, even the powers that be, found it an appropriate phrase to use," he says. "I also think social media is often denigrated as a source of evil and bad things in the world, but on occasion I think it can be used for very positive things. I think the vast majority of people who shared my post and liked my post have actually found the phrase and the sentiment useful to them, so I think we have to give social media a fair judgement at times and respect the fact it can be a source for good."

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.