The term nomophobia – "no mobile" phobia – was coined in 2008 by British researchers, and now a U.K. survey shows that more than half of the population suffer from this condition.
A 2012 survey by Internet security and mobile technology firm SecurEnvoy shows that two-thirds of the population, 66 percent of the 1,000 survey respondents, experience nomophobia, up 13 percent from the first study in 2008.
But having the condition may not necessarily warrant medical attention.
"While the fact that so many people say they experience real fear just thinking about losing their mobile phone is startling, it doesn't necessarily mean that every one of those of 66 percent of respondents need treatment," says Dr. Elizabeth Waterman, an addiction and recovery expert with Morningside Recovery Center in Newport Beach, Calif.
Nomophobia becomes a problem when it causes trouble in a relationship, such as someone not nurturing the relationship because they are always on their phone, says Waterman. "It also becomes a problem if you're getting in trouble at work or at school because you're looking at non-work and non-school messages or material on your phone," she says. (See: "The 411 on cellphone tickets.")
Dr. Brian Johnson, director of addiction psychiatry at SUNY Upstate Medical school in Syracuse, N.Y., says, "Addiction is a serious thing, and it's important not to trivialize it the way some people do when they say they are 'addicted' to a TV show or to chocolate. By definition, addiction occurs when someone experiences repeated harm from 'x' or whatever it is they are addicted to, which is usually something enjoyable."
Johnson says that nomophobia for some people could be part of an anxiety disorder, but he says it's hard to identify this as a phobia or an addiction because the harm caused by overusing a cellphone is minor compared to the devastating physical consequences of drug addiction or even the financial ruin associated with a shopping addiction.
Warning signs of nomophobia
Waterman says some of the signs that your nomophobia requires medical attention include:
The first step to determine an appropriate treatment is to assess the level of impairment caused by the patient's fear, says Waterman.
"The issue can be a phobia, an addiction or OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder), or it can be a combination of these issues," says Waterman.
Treatment for nomophobia helps patients develop coping skills to prepare them for an intervention.
"We tell patients we're going to remove their phone for an extended period of time, usually at least the first 10 days if they are in an inpatient program, because they need to be less distracted by external communication," says Waterman
Waterman suggests that people with less serious cases of nomophobia try these strategies:
"If you can't let go of your phone, then this could be a sign that your life is out of balance, but there's nothing wrong with using your phone a lot as long as that's not causing you any problems," Waterman says.
While Waterman says a mild case of nomophobia may be normal for many people, if you can't change your phone use after friends, partners and colleagues complain, it may be time to talk to a therapist and examine the underlying issues that have turned your mobile phone into your most trusted companion.
Health insurance coverage for nomophobia
If you feel that you do have nomophobia and need treatment, will your insurer pay for it?
"People don't typically come to us for treatment just because of their addiction to their cellphone," says Waterman. "Usually there's a dual problem such as substance abuse or mental illness coupled with nomophobia. Often nomophobia is part of a generalized anxiety problem. For example, one patient we're working with has post-traumatic stress disorder and a significant fear of losing her phone."
Waterman says health insurance companies typically cover treatment for patients with a phobia or anxiety disorder.
"Cigna would cover a disorder that's considered a standard accepted diagnosis, based on the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM)," says Julie B. Kessel, M.D., senior medical director for coverage policy for Cigna. "The level of care would be determined by the degree of functional impairment the individual experiences and the level of danger to the individual."
Nomophobia is not yet included in the DSM. Internet use disorder is also not yet included, but is on the list of mental conditions requiring further study. (See: "Infographic: Is your internet addiction covered?")
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