Smartphones are an integral part of today’s teen relationships. As parents, we’re getting used to seeing our kids communicate with friends on their phones. Texting. Chatting. Direct messaging. Instagramming.

But what if smartphone-as-communication-tool was only part of the picture? What if our precious (and precocious) digital natives are actually developing relationships, not just through their phones but with the phones themselves?

It’s a thing, folks. And there is real science behind it.


Nomophobia—short for “no mobile phone phobia”—is the name researchers have given to the sensation people get when they’re separated from their mobile device. It represents a distinct set of traits, that differs somewhat from the more familiar FOMO, or Fear of Missing Out. Nomophobes fear not just being disconnected from their friends or being left out of an event, but also losing the convenience of having the world of information at their fingertips. If they misplace their phone (or the battery dies) they feel lost. Untethered. Desperate.

Psychology Today estimates that 66% of adults suffer from nomophobia.

Nomophobes feel extremely anxious when their phones go dead, because they tend to have a strong desire to be available, to stay connected, to have information at their fingertips.

Caglar Yildirim, an Iowa State University PhD candidate, studying human-computer interaction.

Are you a nomophobe?

There are four distinct characteristics that true nomophobes share when they're separated from their phones:

  • they feel insecure when they can't communicate with others

  • they feel disconnected in general, out of touch with their online identity

  • they're bothered by their inability to access information (not being able to get directions or answer a friend's question about who won the Oscar for Best Actor in 1988)*

  • they feel annoyed with the loss of convenience (not being able to make dinner reservations or add something to their calendar)

But wait, there’s more.

Science has long understood a concept called transactive memory. This is the idea that when we have a good source of information about some specific topic close at hand, we are less likely to retain information about that particular topic. So if my brother is an expert chef, I might not bother to remember which spices go best with lamb. I’ll just call my brother and use his expertise rather than develop my own.

Research has begun to explore whether people are now using their phones in the same way we’ve always used our human social networks. Early data suggests this is the case—which is something we’ll need to take into account as we consider how our teens’ relationships with their phones will affect their future lives.

Curious about your own level of smartphone dependence? Take this quiz.

What can we do to combat nomophobia?

First, let's not panic. There's some evidence that what we're experiencing now with smartphones is just a variation on the age-old theme of technological advancement. Robert Weiss, co-author of "Closer Together, Further Apart: The Effect of Technology and the Internet on Parenting, Work and Relationships," says it's quite common to question dependency in the early days of any new advancement. But that true addiction and phobic-behaviors are only really applicable to about 10-12% of the population. So your teen probably doesn't have a truly diagnosable condition (and likely neither do you.)

In any case, there are some practical things you can do to minimize the negative effects of smartphone reliance, both for your teen and yourself:

  • Make it a habit—Set aside a period of time every day to live without your smartphone.

  • Try to maintain balance—For every hour you spend in digital communication, spend an equal amount of time socializing face to face.

  • Experiment with a Family Tech Fast—Set aside a weekend to see what it feels like to go without technology entirely.

  • Don't take your phone to bed—It's a healthy habit to get into, and that goes for both you and your teen.

Having access to a smartphone unquestionably makes life easier. But, like any tool, its value lies in how we choose to use it. The habits we help our teens set will likely stick with them. And the more thoughtful we are about how we employ technology now, the smarter we'll all be about using our smartphones in the future.

*Michael Douglas, for Wall Street