My nephew has a Homer Simpson ringtone on his cellphone. It's configured so that when he receives a call from work it goes ‘doh' but when it's from a friend or family it goes ‘woo-hoo'. It's useful because it acts as a filter and unless he's expecting an especially important call, the one's from work are simply ignored during his free time.
This little anecdote scratches the surface of a developing issue with technology and to which the cellphone has become the focus of attention. Our cellphones have increasingly become a part of our very fabric, so much a part that in 2008 the term nomophobia was conjured to reflect the fear and anxiety of being without them. Nomophobics are those people who can't be without their cellphone, who can't switch it off at night, who check for texts or messages several times an hour and who get physical symptoms like increased heart rate and sweating if the phone goes missing.
Nomophobia is also in the news because the latest surveys say the problem is increasing. A small survey by one company put a population figure of 53 percent of people affected in 2008, which now they say, has climbed to 66 percent. Women are more affected than men but, according to the stats, this may be because men increasingly own two devices in case one gets lost - therefore they are less anxious.
I may be accused of being a bit picky when I suggest the anxiety connected with loss of a cellphone doesn't really fall into the phobia category. To me, the need for cellphone use and checking is more a sign of dependency that can lead to compulsive checking acts. In saying that I'm signed up to the idea that cellphone use does, in some form, act as a barometer of anxiety but the reasons vary from person to person and our age makes a difference too. Loss of a phone may well cause great anxiety but again I think there are a host of reasons. Maybe the stats for so-called nomophobia have increased because our cellphones are now more expensive, more complex, contain more personal information, photographs, video's and documents than they ever did, or could, in 2008?
Small, cheap cellphones were still something of a novelty just a decade or so ago. I remember my 10 year-old daughter being desperate to get one because her friends all had them. At the time there was a bit of a scare about the damage these phones might be doing to the brain. In the end, of course, we succumbed to the inevitable and she got the phone. Before we knew it we had one too and the rest is history. Then, you could make a call at an exorbitant rate or you could send a text - that was it.
Now, cellphones are great. They can provide us with maps, tell us where the nearest coffee place is, take pictures, contain addresses and pretty much anything we used to consider as the function of the pc. There is perhaps a darker side to all this in terms of the cellphone as a surveillance device. It's possible to track people through the cellphone, not merely by calling them to ask where they are, who they are with and what they are doing, but to actually use the phone as a bugging device. That's an issue for another day, but closer to home it seems pretty clear that cellphones have become a useful tool for the anxious. But, are they used to reduce anxiety or does using them promote anxiety?
The days when an older child might step out of the door and be told the time to be back for food have pretty much passed. Today, they may still be off for the day, but the cellphone is likely to be with them. Not uncommonly their very first phone will be a gift from parents who view the device as a means of keeping in touch and ensuring everything is o.k. To what extent does the child pick up the message that their cellphone is a gift because their parents are concerned about their welfare? The person with the phone quickly realizes it can be used for a whole variety of situations, one of which is when anxiety strikes. Maybe they call when walking alone, or in a taxi, or in a crowd of people they don't know or feel uncomfortable with. Sometimes, rather than learning to cope with social situations or even a touch of boredom, the phone is available as a handy form of displacement or distraction.
Cellphones, or rather their users, can also evoke a range of fairly negative emotions from people around them. Have you ever been on a train while someone conducts an hour of business on their cellphone - loudly? It's a stressful and intrusive experience. I remember similar feelings from my teachings days. I'd be sharing the wisdom and then dim the lights in the lecture theatre to use the screen, only to see a dozen or so faces glowing from the light of their smartphones. I'd politely point out the distracting nature of what I was seeing and that was usually enough, but not for some. As for cinema's, restaurants, galleries - well let's no go there.
Back to the question. Could you live without your cellphone? Can you put it down during a vacation and not become twitchy or preoccupied with who may have contacted you? Is the phone an extension of your personality or just a handy tool? Are you in charge of it, or is it in charge of you?
Published On: February 20, 2012