Jenny Woo Talks Nomophobia

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Jenny Woo
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Jenny Woo Talks Nomophobia

Jenny Woo here! Yes, that’s right I’m back from my long drawn out maternity leave and can’t be happier to come back with a great interview I had with Addiction and Recovery expert, Dr. Elizabeth Waterman, Psy.D, from Morningside Recovery Center in California.


No, I didn’t pick up a new addiction while I was enjoying these past several months with my baby girl, however, I think we’ve all been there when we can’t find our phone, accidentally leave it at home, or it dies and we have a moment of panic. “Nomophobia” is a real phobia out there that real life people suffer from. The term is an abbreviation for “no-mobile-phone phobia” and Dr. Waterman treats such patients. Read my interview to see if you fall into the category of being a “Nomophobe”.

JENNY: Tell me, what exactly is “Nomophobia” and who coined this term? Also, when did this addiction come to surface?

DR. WATERMAN:  It’s not a clinical disorder first and foremost. It is a label that was created by SecurEnvoy, which is a tech company in the UK. What they did is they surveyed around a thousand people in 2008 and they surveyed people about how they would feel if they were to lose their phone, which means they would lose connectivity to other people, to their work life, to social media, and to information in general. About 58% reported intense fear or anxiety just with the thought of not having their phone. So they did the study again in 2012 and found 66% of people they surveyed reported this here. In doing some research online earlier this year, I came across that site and the name is just kind of a fun name, it means “No-more-mobile phobia”.  So we use that around here, a light kind of fun term to talk about people’s unhealthy attachment to their cell phones.

JENNY:  Speaking of that, obviously patients have anxiety and that anxiety scales from low to high. But have you seen patients share that humor in this?

DR. WATERMAN:  Yes, the clients whom I’ve seen with this issue. It’s not a high number of people that come in the door and they don’t come in the door to Morningside for “Nomophobia” specifically. This is usually a symptom of a larger issue.

JENNY: When you say larger issue, is it more of a physiological issue? Something that maybe happened to them in the past?

DR. WATERMAN: Well we get people who come in with substance abuse and co-occurring mental illness; or just substance abuse; or just mental illness.  When I say mental illness, we’ve seen people with unhealthy phone attachments in people with PTSD (Post-traumatic stress disorder), people with generalized anxiety, of course with people with substance abuse, and people with OCD (Obsessive-compulsive disorder). So it’s usually a part of those bigger problems.

JENNY: Not too change the subject but I had a friend tell me the other day that there’s a symptom that men suffer from – it’s a vibrating symptom. Men tend to keep their phones in their pocket usually on vibrate or with both ringer and vibrate and when they don’t have their phone in their pocket they still feel that vibrating sensation on their thigh. Do you come across patients like that?

DR. WATERMAN: Yes, that’s been something even the staff here have talked about. That they’re so used to having their phones in their pocket that they’ll have the phantom vibrating sensation. Yeah, it’s something that people have talked about. It’s not a big concern.

JENNY: Well I find that hilarious and of course it would only happen to men.

DR. WATEMAN: Exactly.

JENNY:  What are the warning signs for “Nomophobia”? And what can one do if they see such signs in friends and family? Ex: I’m running late for a meeting that might last an hour. I left my phone at home and realize the situation after I’ve already been driving 15 minutes and I’m 5 minutes away from my meeting. I turn around to get my phone even if it causes me to be 30 min late to the meeting. Is that a possible symptom? Or does it really far extend into different areas?

DR. WATERMAN:  That can definitely be a symptom. The example you described could definitely be a symptom especially if it’s happening multiple times and you’re experiencing consequences at work or in your social life or in your school life because of it. People can’t really see what’s the priority here. Getting to work for a meeting on time is probably going to be the priority and go and get your phone later. 

JENNY:  For most people that would be the priority is getting to the meeting on time but for some they would prefer to be late for the meeting than do without their phone.

DR. WATERMAN:  Yes, and that would be a sign that there’s an unhealthy attachment, especially if you suffering negative consequences because of your choices.

JENNY:  Are there any more serious symptoms to be aware of?

DR. WATERMAN:  Yes, excessively checking your phone for calls, texts, or emails.  Unwillingness to turn your phone off or leave it alone for an extended amount of time, constantly checking to see if it’s within arms length or on your body, using it in inappropriate settings such as the bathroom, in meetings when you’re not supposed to, in class, church, on dates, and during family dinners. Basically, during anytime when you should be focusing on the face-to-face interaction versus your phone. Also, if you have really strong feelings of anxiety or panic when you realize when you’ve lost your phone or left it somewhere or just at the thought of losing or leaving it somewhere.

JENNY:  I’m now wondering if I suffer from this. Haha. I mean, I haven’t had the signs of anxiety but I’ve thought, “Where’s my phone? Everyone’s contact info is in that phone. I don’t want to have to buy a new phone”.  And after not being able to find it I’d have someone call it or use my Skype to call it all the while I’m looking hysterically for it.

DR. WATERMAN:  That’s probably the normal response.  Somebody who would have an abnormal response would probably break down and become so overwhelmed with emotion that they couldn’t move forward in their day and they couldn’t even get to the problem solving. Other things such as obsessively thinking about your phone, where it is, or who’s calling and you’re not able to attend to the things going on around you. In order for it to be anything that we address in therapy it has to be causing real problems either in your relationships or in your job or in school.

JENNY: Does this addiction affect those more so with smartphones versus a standard cell phone with limited capabilities?

DR. WATERMAN:  I do not know for sure but I would assume so. I would make an educated guess to say that yes people with smartphones probably have this more than people with standard flip phones. Why? Because there’s more activity that you can engage in on the smartphone. There’s more connectivity. You can gain access to different things like the Internet, FaceBook, or shopping sites, where you can’t do that on a regular flip phone.

JENNY: When you talked about other addictions, is there a fear of combining “Nomophobia” obviously with other addictions?  You said that it could make it worse.  It’s a combination almost.  In today’s age with smartphones, you can go onto a gambling site.  Those who are sex addicts are going to a porn site for example. In your opinion, is this a recent surge tied into culmination of these other addictions?

DR. WATERMAN:  It definitely can be tied in.  You’re exactly right. We have a gambling addiction track here and people with gambling problems will use their phones to connect with bookies. They’ll use it to do a variety of things in which that perpetuates their gambling issue. Another thing is a shopping addiction. People with shopping addictions can use their phone to access any store or site that sells stuff. Actually I have a client who has the shopping and the phone attachment that’s combined.

JENNY:  Really?

DR. WATERMAN:  Yes. She was racking up thousands of dollars.  Thousands and thousands of dollars because of shopping on her phone. Now it wasn’t exclusively on her phone but that’s what she spent a lot of her time on her phone doing.

JENNY:  I guess she could be anywhere at any time doing it. She didn’t have to be in her home in front of her computer to do something like that.

DR. WATERMAN:  Exactly. And with the sex addiction, you are correct. We see a lot of people with sex addiction actually in here and they can use their phone.  For the gay community, they have that “grinder” site where they can actually meet up with people.  There’s the Craiglist.com stuff, there’s the porn site….

JENNY:  Exactly. Just to be able to meet up with someone for a “quickie”.


JENNY: Wow. That’s crazy!

DR. WATERMAN:  Multiple quickies in one day actually.

JENNY:  That’s scary if you think about it.

DR. WATERMAN:  Yes it is.

JENNY:  What recommendations do you offer those who may be suffering from “Nomophobia”? And what about those who simply must have access to email via their smartphones and it doesn’t really go more than that. Do you sit down with a psychologist and you talk about this and that. But is there also medication involved to treat those who suffer from this?

DR. WATERMAN:  I’m not big on medication. So I would say let’s do it with a different kind of therapy. But no, there’s no medication being used for a phone addiction. Now there are medications that are used for obsessive compulsive disorder and this could be a symptom of their OCD and so a medication might be appropriate at that time.

JENNY:  In today’s society is “Nomophobia” really a bad thing when one considers that you no longer have to be cooped up in an office? Isn’t there an argument that your quality of life improves since now you can literally work from the beach like I occasionally do and always have my office with me?

DR. WATERMAN:  No, I’m not saying that smartphones are bad all together.  I think they have positive qualities and they can have negative qualities.  It just determines on whether or not your life is in balance. If your life becomes out of balance because you’re relying on your smartphone to meet all of your needs or the majority of your needs then that’s a problem. We need face-to-face social interaction.

JENNY:  As far as socialization, my boss told me a funny story the other day that he was out eating with three friends the other night and they were all sitting there on their smartphones doing emails or this and that. He finally made the comment, “Isn’t this great! We don’t have to socialize anymore. We can all just sit here and check out our smartphones”. Do you find that society had become less social because of their phones? Or maybe I should say, less social with each other as far as one on one social interaction?

DR. WATERMAN:  Sure, there does seem to be a trend where people are relying on their smartphones to meet their socialization needs now more than they have in the past especially with the younger adults and teens.  They are relying more and more.  They’ve grown up with them. It’s just normal for them to interact with their phones versus with each other in a face-to-face setting. I think that’s when it can become a problem when we’re relying on our phones too much and we’re ignoring or not nurturing our personal relationships.

One of the things that people can do if they think they’re becoming too distracted by their phones and they’re not nurturing their relationships enough is commit to putting the phones down for a certain amount of time a day and really just focus on the people around you. There’s no magic time frame. Maybe an hour works for someone whereas three hours will work for somebody else. But committing to that and really refocusing on the family, friends, or even on yourself.

JENNY:  As time progresses, do you find more and more patients coming out of the wood works and saying, “I think I have a problem”? Also, do you see a lot more counselors and psychologists getting involved with “Nomophobia”?

DR. WATERMAN:  I haven’t heard of very many people addressing the unhealthy attachment to the phone with their clients but I can say that I don’t know everything or everybody. So there could definitely be people out there treating this and I do think if it became a really big issue for clients that their mental health provider would be able to pick up on it and make it part of their treatment plan.  I think we’ll start seeing more and more of this in the future especially as people start recognizing it and becoming more aware of their own behaviors and of the problems that causing in their lives.

JENNY:  There are plenty of addictions out there that people don’t own up to. Some people have to do interventions saying, “Yes, you do have a problem. You need to get help”. Do you think that “Nomophobia” will be something like that where the person says, “I don’t have a problem” and comes up with every excuse in the book to have their phone on them at all times while in use in those inconvenient places and times all the while their family sees the problem?

DR. WATERMAN:  Certainly. People can easily be in denial about it. I try to tell people if your friends or family are starting to make comments or starting to tell you that they feel you’re distracted or not even present when you’re actually there, then you really need to take a good look at your behaviors and then put the phone away.  They’re telling you that they’re missing you so pay attention because I do think that denial can be a big part of it.

JENNY:  Thank you Dr. Waterman.

DR. WATERMAN:  You’re welcome.

- Jenny Woo, Gambling911.com Senior International Correspondent

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