Here’s What Happens When College Kids Have Their Smartphones Confiscated For An Hour

Can you say “separation anxiety”?

The term nomophobia was coined a few years ago–an awkward mash-up of nomobilephobia–to describe that altogether modern surge of anxiety that comes when you can’t, for whatever reason and however long, use your preferred mobile device. It is not the most elegant term. To language purists, nomophobia comes off as “dreadful faux-Greek.” To baseball fans, it feels like a late-1990s marketing campaign for once-feared Japanese pitching sensation Hideo Nomo. To New Yorkers, it might suggest a trendy new neighborhood to be avoided called NoMo, where the only thing scarier than the hipsters are the drink prices.


So the name might need some tinkering, but what’s becoming clear from the evidence linking mobile devices and anxiety is that such a name is needed. In a 2013 study about technology dependence in general, researchers found some of the strongest effects related to mobile technology in particular. Among test participants born in the 1990s, 44% reported feeling either highly or moderately anxious at not being able to check their text messages–much greater than the anxiety produced by missing out on social networks (23%), or phone calls (24%), or emails (19%). Among those born in the 1980s, 41% reported the same.

Recently, a group of communications and psychology researchers at California State University-Dominguez Hills put that mobile dependency to a controlled test. They recruited 163 university students–with average age of 24–to a large lecture hall lacking windows, clocks, or other distractions. Upon their arrival, some of the test participants had to surrender their mobile phone, while others were allowed to keep it but had to silence it and put it away. For about the next hour, the device-deprived crowd completed a standard anxiety assessment every 20 minutes, three times in all, with nothing to do in between but sit quietly and wait.

This did not go over very well. Across all the participants–whether their phone was taken away or merely turned off–anxiety increased over time from the first assessment to the third. However, the loss hit some worse than others.

The interaction of testing time (bottom axis) and daily WMD use on anxiety (left axis). (WMD stands for wireless mobile device.)

“High” mobile device users–those who spend 25 hours a day on their phone–suffered the most: their anxiety went up at each assessment. “Moderate” users–those who spend 11.5 hours a day on their devices–experienced an increase in anxiety from the first to the second assessment, then leveled out. Only “low” users–who spent an average of four hours a day on their device–showed no increase in anxiety over time.

(If 25 hours a day sounds odd, these figures double-count time spent on simultaneous tasks; so if you listen to music for an hour while texting for an hour, you come out with two hours of mobile usage.)


Communications scholar Nancy Cheever, who led the study, says mobile device dependency isn’t considered a disorder by the DSM-V, the official clinical manual for mental health. Still, she tells Co.Design, there’s an appropriate classification for the “sense of loss” that many of these test participants felt when they couldn’t use their mobile device: separation anxiety. “People who are heavy wireless mobile device users may have an unhealthy dependency on their smartphones,” says Cheever, “as shown in the significantly increased anxiety felt when they could not use it.”

There was little difference in anxiety among test participants at the first assessment, even taking usage habits into account, suggesting that everyone had comparable baseline levels of anxiety. But once the reality of detachment from the mobile device set in, the discomfort started to shift. At the second assessment, which came about a half hour after test participants arrived at the lecture hall, the high-use group had significantly more anxiety than the moderate-use group, which in turn had more anxiety than the low-use group. The same trend held true at the third assessment, taken an hour after arrival.

There was also little difference between those participants who had their device confiscated and those simply asked to put it away. This finding came as a bit of a surprise to the researchers–you would think taking away someone’s phone would produce more anxiety than just having them shut it down–but it was also revealing. (The one striking exception is that anxiety increased for moderate users who had their device taken, but not for moderate users who turned it off, shown below.) For heavy users in particular, losing mobile connection is painful whatever form the loss takes.

The interaction between testing time (bottom axis) and daily WMD use on anxiety (left axis), separated into those whose device was confiscated (top graph) and those who shut it off (bottom graph).

The researchers report their results in a recent issue of Computers in Human Behavior. Also noteworthy from their research is that texting was the most common daily task, while the least common–surprise, surprise–was reading digital books or magazines. They conclude (abbreviating “wireless mobile devices” as WMDs, which may feel either grossly inappropriate or oddly fitting): “These results suggest that students are so dependent on their WMDs that anxiety increases when the device is absent–even when they are aware the device will be back in their possession shortly–and those who use the device more frequently become significantly more anxious as time passes than those who use it less frequently.”

So nomophobia, or whatever wireless dependency gets named, might not be a clinical label just yet, but it seems to be heading in that direction. For twenty-somethings who use their devices a lot, the separation anxiety that occurs when they’re out of touch is enough of a problem already. Future studies might pair self-reported anxiety with physiological measures of discomfort to get a broader picture of the impact. And, of course, the rise of wearables will take digital attachment to a whole new level. As the barriers to connectivity get lower, expect the anxiety of disconnecting to go up, up, up.


Inline images via Computers in Human Behavior


About the author

Eric Jaffe is an editor at CityLab, where he writes about transportation, history, and behavioral science, among other topics, through the lens of urban life. He's also the author of The King's Best Highway (2010) and A Curious Madness (2014).