Emerging Trends in Psychology: Tech Dependency

Posted October 16, 2015 | By Tricia Hussung

Illustration of characters staring at their mobile phones.

There’s no doubt that the exponential growth of technology has benefited society, but there is a darker side to the rise of the machine. Based on a 2013 British study, 51 percent of surveyed individuals admitted to suffering from “extreme tech anxiety” when separated from their devices such as smartphones or tablets. As people become more and more technologically connected, some are concerned that we are losing important aspects of the human experience, becoming impatient, impulsive, forgetful and even narcissistic. That’s why experts are questioning society’s dependence on technology: what it is, how it happened and what we can do to mitigate the risks of dependency during a time of tech advancement.

Illustration of character holding up a smartphone.

Regardless of age, gender, ethnicity or economic status, most individuals are smartphone users — in fact, you probably have one on you right now. Around 56 percent of all Americans own a smartphone, the Pew Research Center says. And we’re using them everywhere, from the shower (12 percent), at the movies (35 percent) and even while driving (55 percent), according to the 2013 Mobile Consumer Habits study conducted by Harris Interactive. This is part of why we feel so much anxiety when phones are lost, dead or even out of reach for a few minutes. Smartphones and other devices have become so central to modern life that many rely on them for everything. When was the last time you remembered a phone number without checking, or paid your bills by mail? Communication with loved ones, money management, social media and GPS directions are all tethered to the Internet and the Internet of Things, making connectivity more vital than ever before. All of this contributes to technology dependency, what a 2012 report claims is “possibly the biggest non-drug addiction of the 21st century.”

About Technology Dependence

When The New York Times covered the topic in 2010, the reporter interviewed Dr. Elias Aboujaoude, a psychiatrist and the author of Virtually You: The Dangerous Powers of the E-Personality. His assessment was less than positive: “More and more, life is resembling the chat room. We’re paying a price in terms of our cognitive life because of this virtual lifestyle.” And some studies have suggested that excessive dependence on cellphones and the Internet is akin to addiction. In the past, the central concern was that technology detracts from interpersonal relationships and social norms. However, psychologists have noticed a “subtle and more insidious” effect of the move to online: “It may be that the immediacy of the Internet, the efficiency of the iPhone and the anonymity of the chat room change the core of who we are,” The New York Times reports.

Now, a name has been coined for the fear of being without your phone: “nomophobia” (i.e., no mobile phobia). Psychology Today describes it as “that rush of anxiety and fear when you realize you are disconnected and out of the loop with friends, family, work and the world.” Polls suggest that women are slightly more prone to this separation anxiety: SecurEnvoy reports 70 percent of women and 61 percent of men experience these symptoms.

Nomophobia: a state of stress caused by having no access to or being unable to use one's mobile phone

It’s important to keep in mind that these are not considered classic phobias and aren’t in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V), but this may change. It has been proposed to be included in the next edition, DSM-VI, as a specific phobia. However, validated psychometric scales are now available as a diagnostic tool. One example is the “Questionnaire of Dependence of Mobile Phone/Test of Mobile Phone Dependence.” According to the article “Psychological Predictors of Problem Mobile Phone Use,” psychological factors are involved in the overuse of mobile phones and other devices. These could include low self-esteem, impulsiveness, sensation-seeking and highly extroverted or introverted personality. Technology dependence can also heighten the symptoms of preexisting disorders such as social phobia, social anxiety disorder or panic disorder. One study reported that the stress levels associated with nomophobia are equivalent to those of “wedding day jitters” and trips to the dentist. The anxiety and other feelings caused by tech dependence are very real.

Whether nomophobia is a true mental disorder is up to interpretation and further research, but the impact on individuals’ lives is significant. More than one in two of those surveyed experiencing these anxieties report that they never turn off their phones. This is because, as marriage and family therapist Sharon Gilchrest O’Neill explains in an interview with Cult of Mac, there are calls and texts clients feel they must be able to answer. When we are constantly anticipating a technological interaction — a phone call, text, email or social media notification — our bodies and brains respond in a way that registers as anxiety. In short, smartphones and other devices create a waiting game environment. The user is constantly anxious about missing out on what’s happening in the digital world. Psychologist Larry Rosen describes it to Computerworld as “that split between a level of addiction, meaning we’re trying to get pleasure, versus … trying to reduce our anxiety.”

Psychosocial Factors

Because technology is so woven into our daily lives, oftentimes users have no choice but to spend hours online each day. Dr. Kimberly Young, a psychologist and author of Caught in the Net, told The New York Times that technology dependence and nomophobia are similar to other addictions. Technology is essential in today’s society, so those who exhibit disordered online behavior can never entirely give up use. Instead, they must learn moderation and self-control. This is why some experts suggest setting limits for how often you check your smartphone, and even leaving it at home occasionally. Some restaurants and airport lounges are making the choice for us, by implementing “no cellphone use” and “quiet zone” policies. The trend toward such practices is reminiscent of how cigarette use has been banned in many public (and private) spaces. For some, not having the distraction of a smartphone makes an evening more enjoyable; for others, it may be stressful and anxiety-inducing.

Illustration of a silhouette character "plugged in" from their brain to a mobile phone.

Clinical characteristics of nomophobia or technology dependence are easily noticeable in social settings. Individuals may considerably decrease face-to-face interaction with others, preferring to communicate via technology as much as possible. Because users may lean on smartphones and other technology to avoid feelings of discomfort, anguish or stress, they exhibit extreme or irrational reactions when Internet use is restricted in airports, schools, hospitals and workplaces. Signs of depression can occur when the user doesn’t receive digital contact such as “likes” on a Facebook photo or replies to text messages. Attachment symptoms include the urge to sleep with a device or have it at all times. When the device becomes necessary for peace of mind and security, technology dependence could be the cause.

Nomophobia or technology dependence could also be related to other disorders. Bragazzi and Puente suggest this in “A proposal for including nomophobia in the new DSM-V.” Those who are diagnosed with underlying social disorders are likely to experience “nervousness, anxiety, anguish, perspiration and trembling when separated or unable to use their digital device. Mobile phones, tablets or laptops make such individuals feel safer, more confident and less anxious. In short, nomophobic and tech-dependent behavior can reinforce social anxiety tendencies as a method of reducing stress generated by social anxiety or phobia. Empirically proven treatments are limited thus far because technology dependence is a relatively new concept. However, cognitive-behavioral psychotherapy combined with pharmacological interventions such as clonazepam and tranylcypromine have been successful in reducing its effects. It is important to note that these medications were designed to treat social anxiety disorder rather than nomophobia directly. Experts suggest investigating, identifying and treating any underlying mental disorders that may contribute to the dependent behaviors as the best starting point.

Combating Technology Dependence

Though there are serious cases of nomophobia and tech dependence that require professional medical or behavioral health interventions, there are ways for us to reduce reliance on technology and break bad habits. The following are tips and effective practices for maintaining a balance between our lives and the digital world.

  • No texting while driving. This should be obvious for safety reasons, both for yourself and others. Keep smartphone use to before and after you drive.
  • No taking your device into the bathroom. These small breaks add up and can help you step away from your screen. Not to mention, this tip prevents phone death by toilet or sink.
  • Pay with your wallet. It seems small, but think about how many times a week you make a financial transaction. Keeping your phone in your pocket while you pay could significantly reduce screen time, even if it’s just because you have to put it down for the moment.
  • Keep your phone out of bed. It’s tempting to fall asleep while scrolling through Facebook, but breaking this habit is another way to reduce technology dependency. Also turn off the phone completely while you’re asleep.
  • Turn off your phone when you’re with friends. This may be the most difficult habit to break. Focus on the people you are interacting with in person, not just on social media.
  • Try leaving your phone at home. When possible, spend a day without technology at your fingertips. You can start with a dinner date of a few hours and then progress to being without your phone for an entire day.

When it comes to technology dependence, personal moderation can play a central role. Though the Internet has become a requirement for many aspects of our lives, there are still many occasions when unplugging is possible — and preferable — to being tethered to a device. With continuing innovation and technology changes, it will become more difficult to strike a balance between “real” life and online life. But as more is learned about our tendency to become attached to technology, strategies and even treatments will emerge to help mitigate the negative behaviors associated with it.


Psychology Education at Concordia University, St. Paul

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If you are interested in the psychology and social behaviors behind technology dependency, a degree in psychology may be right for you. Concordia University, St. Paul’s online Bachelor of Arts in Psychology provides a solid educational foundation for both entry-level social sciences careers and continued education in graduate programs.