April 23, 2018

Are You a Nomophobe? | Not Dead Yet

Cheryl LaGuardiaI was serving on a public desk the other day, when a student came up and asked me to help him find something in our discovery system and to walk him through the search process. I swiveled the computer monitor his way so he could watch me go through the search, started the process, and saw that he was busily working on his smartphone. I figured he was taking notes and thought he’d look up at the computer monitor in a second to see what I was showing him.

Not so. He continued to thumb busily on his smartphone. So I proceeded to describe the steps as I went through them, and he continued to thumb his phone. He didn’t acknowledge that I was there, or that the computer screen was there, or that he was following anything I said or showed him. I went through several searches to locate the item he sought, demonstrating how to do the searches and narrating what to do when the system located the item; this took about five minutes. Throughout that time the student never looked up at the screen, or at me—he went on thumbing the smartphone.

I found the item he sought, wrote down the call number, and attempted to give it to him. I had to interrupt his smartphone interaction to do this, and then I got a glimpse of what he was doing on the phone: he was ordering food from a local restaurant. Once I handed him the slip of paper with the call number for the item, he asked, “Can’t I get this online?” I assured him that it wasn’t available online (as I’d demonstrated in the discovery system over the past five minutes), but he could get the item using the call number on the slip of paper. He shrugged, said, “Thanks,” and left.

A colleague who was nearby observed the interaction and told me I was awfully polite about the interchange and said she thought she would not have been so restrained had she been the one trying to work with that researcher. I noted that I am becoming used to students’ inattention—even when they ask me for help and to show them how to search for materials—because they are coming to the desk raptly attentive to whatever they’re doing on their smartphones and little else.

That goes for most of my smartphone-wielding friends. We can’t have an uninterrupted meal anymore without somebody getting a text “they have to read RIGHT NOW!” or a call “they have to take RIGHT NOW!” I understand if there is a medical emergency or other urgent matter that comes up, but I’m talking about routine calls and texts they could reply to later, when we’re not eating and trying to converse. What happened to having technology serve us? When did it become the master whose siren call (or text) must be obeyed on the instant? And, for that matter, what happened to common courtesy?

For the purposes of full disclosure, I will tell you that I have so far successfully resisted getting a smartphone. Why? Because I’ve seen its effect on dear friends, friends who are in all other respects polite, civil, adult human beings. But get that smartphone in their hands, and they’re on it constantly, posting to Facebook or tweeting, and always on the alert for a trill or a ping that signals SOMETHING IS HAPPENING ONLINE. And they respond lightning quickly. Mid-conversation. Mid-meal. Mid-anything.

It appears I’m not the only person fed up about peoples’ behavior vis-à-vis smartphones. My colleague Steve Kuehler (thanks, Steve!) brought to my attention the recent New York Times article “Hold the Phone, It’s Patti LuPone,” in which the actress describes to an interviewer a smartphone incident that occurred during her current play: “This woman—a very pretty young woman—was sitting with her boyfriend or husband. We could see her text. She was so uninterested. She showed her husband what she was texting. We talked about it at intermission. When we went out for the second act, I was very close to her, and she was still texting. I watched her and thought, “What am I going to do?” At the very end of that scene, we all exit. What I normally do is shake the hand of the people in the front row. I just walked over to her, shook her hand, and took her phone. I walked offstage and handed it to the stage manager, who gave it to the house manager.”

When asked by the interviewer how the rest of the cast reacted to the incident, Lupone noted, “Everybody is deeply upset by it. How can you not be distressed by this? Everybody is freaked out,” and further stated, “I don’t know why they buy the ticket or come to the theater if they can’t let go of the phone. It’s controlling them. They can’t turn it off and can’t stop looking at it. They are truly inconsiderate, self-absorbed people who have no public manners whatsoever. I don’t know what to do anymore. I was hired as an actor, not a policeman of the audience.”


A little research into the phenomenon of constant smartphone use discovered the article “Exploring the Dimensions of Nomophobia: Development and Validation of a Self-Reported Questionnaire,” by Caglar Yildirima and Ana-Paula Correiab of Iowa State University, in Computers in Human Behavior, Volume 49, August 2015, p.130–137. Yes, the phenomenon has an official name: nomophobia, with the authors explaining, “Within the scope of this study, nomophobia is defined as the fear of not being able to use a smartphone or a mobile phone and/or the services it offers. It refers to the fear of not being able to communicate, losing the connectedness that smartphones allow, not being able to access information through smartphones, and giving up the convenience that smartphones provide.”

Not only does it have a name, but the article references, “A proposal for including nomophobia in the new DSM-V,” by Nicola Luigi Bragazzi and Giovanni Del Puente, a 2014 article “mak[ing] a comprehensive overview of the existing literature, discussing the clinical relevance of this pathology, its epidemiological features, the available psychometric scales, and the proposed treatment,” and proposing the consideration of nomophobia for inclusion in the DSM-V.

Dinner Tomorrow Night

I’m going out to a celebratory dinner tomorrow night with a bunch of smartphone-toting friends (all of whom are also colleagues), and I plan to begin the celebration by asking everyone to turn off their phones. If they’re loath to do so, I think the first topic of conversation I bring up will be nomophobia. It promises to be a lively evening.

Read eReviews, where Cheryl LaGuardia and Bonnie J.M. Swoger look under the hood of the latest library databases and often offer free database trials

Cheryl LaGuardia About Cheryl LaGuardia

Cheryl LaGuardia always wanted to be a librarian, and has been one for more years than she's going to admit. She cracked open her first CPU to install a CD-ROM card in the mid-1980s, pioneered e-resource reviewing for Library Journal in the early '90s (picture calico bonnets and prairie schooners on the web...), won the Louis Shores / Oryx Press Award for Professional Reviewing, and has been working for truth, justice, and better electronic library resources ever since. Reach her at claguard@fas.harvard.edu, where she's a Research Librarian at Harvard University.



  1. Kimberly McGee says:

    I am 100% with you. It has been our experience at the library that moms cannot put their cellphones away to listen to storytime nor can they be counted on to keep their toddlers from destroying our computers because their head is buried toward their cellphone. It makes me sorry for the little ones who won’t understand why they can’t have their cellphone in preschool. We are turning into a do as I do not as I say society.

    • Good to know I’m not alone in this experience, Kimberly! I also worry about the drivers and pedestrians I see so immersed in their smartphone they don’t see oncoming traffic. And people do feel strongly about it when you ask them to put the phones down (stay tuned for my next Not Dead Yet column for more about that).

      Thanks for writing, and best wishes,

  2. Our library branch manager was always using her phone while she attending/moderating library programs. Talk about rude.

    • anonymous coward says:

      OR, she’s just really busy and you don’t realize all the things she has on her plate…

    • Hi Leslie and anonymous coward:

      It’s kinda hard to believe that someone really has to be on their phone while moderating a library program. For me that’s beyond multi-tasking and busyness to the point of rudeness.

  3. Laura Ploenzke says:

    Amen to this! A few years ago, I experienced a similar incident at the reference desk. A patron came up to me to ask for help, and while I was searching the computer for an answer to her question, her phone rang. She not only answered it, but proceeded to talk, even after I told her I had found the information for her. I’ve also heard nomophobia called “FOMO” – fear of missing out.

    • I have to wonder if the folks engaged in this behavior even consider what they’re doing, or if it’s just so instinctive and knee-jerk a reaction to answer a call or text that they don’t even think about what it is they’re doing (that is, behaving badly). Sad commentary on interpersonal interactions, I think, and yet another sign that civil in-person communication is a dying phenomenon.
      Thanks for writing, Laura!
      Best wishes,

  4. At dinner, all cell phones in the middle of the table. First to reach for their cell phone pays the tab.

    • Excellent suggestion, G! Now, if only one can get everyone to agree to this arrangement….
      Thanks for writing, and best wishes,

  5. I breathed a sigh of relief when I read your article, “Are You a Nomophobe?” Not long ago I read an article that shows the use of Smartphones have caused a phenomenon in the restaurant industry. Statistics show that fewer parties are now being served, and service speed has decreased remarkably – why? Patrons are stalling restaurant staff, servers and cooks because of the use of their phones.Instead of being able to take care of a party in under an hour, the whole process trends into several hours. Those who are forced to wait longer, simply move on. In other words, these businesses are losing money because of the lack of consideration by those suffering as nomophobes. A larger study is needed. Thank you for your timely article.

    • Hi Lori,

      Smartphones are having such huge effects, both good and bad, on the daily fabric of most folks’ lives. What I’m looking for now is an app for good manners in their use — surely someone can develop one to stem the tide of phone use rudeness and incivility!

      Thanks for writing, with best wishes,

  6. Is this just a sign of the times, though? I mean, are people really just cluelessly rude or is it that our world has changed so quickly and in this direction where this is the new normal and those of us who find this behavior clueless and rude are people who haven’t caught on to this trend? There is a good book on this subject: A Deadly Wandering by Matt Richtel. Please read–it comes highly recommended.

    • Hi Stephanie,

      I hope this isn’t the new normal, because no matter how you slice it many of the smartphone behaviors I’m encountering and those mentioned by others here are, well… rude, and in some cases, dangerous. As a result of seeing nomophobic behaviors in others, I am looking more closely at my own behavior vis-a-vis my simple cell phone and am consciously not carrying it nearly as much as once I did, and am not answering calls when I’m interacting with others in person. I now remember that the reason I got the cell phone in the first place was because my Dad was hospitalized with a life threatening illness and I needed to be in close touch with my sister. Activating that memory helped put the technology into what I think is a better perspective for me.

      So I’m sincerely resolving not to catch on to this trend. But thanks very much for the recommendation for the Richtel book; sounds germane and I’ll pursue it!

      Best wishes,

  7. This article does nothing except push anecdata as fact and make librarians sound really really old. Etiquette is the real issue here, not smart phones.

    • Hi Boris,

      Describing the facts of what happened to me is reality, so I’m not sure where the anecdata comes in. I do read ageism in your comment, though, and am disappointed to see you play that card. This doesn’t seem to be an age issue — it does seem to be an issue of common courtesy and etiquette (the top definitions of both in the Urban Dictionary pretty much convey my interpretation of those concepts).

      Thanks for weighing in with your thoughts, with best wishes,

    • Your column is called “not yet dead” and I’m the agiest. Uh huh.

      You use your experiences to diagnose total strangers about their cell phone use based on limited encounters. That’s anecdata that you apply to confirmation bias. Not very rigorous but perfect for an LJ column.

  8. Jamie Bloss says:

    I’m moving to Fiji soon to take a library job and I definitely have a fear of not being able to access 4G at all times, Google maps, and being able to Google anything I forgot or don’t know in an instant. I didn’t know it had a name but it is definitely a legitimate fear. I find myself reaching for my phone at random times and it is a compulsion. I have been reading tons of articles on how to unlock my phone from my wireless carrier and put in a new sim card so I can have access to it, and I was mortified to learn that netflix and spotify might not work on the IP addresses there. Definitely too much anxiety over a phone and internet access! But after reading more about the country I will soon be living and working in, I think it will be a breath of fresh air. I am almost hoping someone mugs me and takes my iPhone so I can immerse myself in the culture and sights around me rather than be worried about instagramming photos of it. A couple years ago I had to surrender my laptop for several days while a new disc drive was installed in it. Those days honestly were blissful and filled with reading books instead of wasting time on Facebook. It’s not that I am a technophobe or old fashioned, I’m an Emerging Technologies librarian and in fact the exact opposite–I’m completely addicted to social media, newsfeeds, and the latest devices. I hope the less accessible internet and smartphones in Fiji will teach me to back off a little (however I still always always turn off the phone completely during performances or trips to the movie theatre, that’s just rude!).

  9. I loved the library journal article that you wrote. Unfortunately, I have felt this way since mobile phones became appendages many years ago.

    I do have one myself only because it was given to me. I only use it for emergencies or if I am in a private place where i can’t access someone. Needless to say, my phone is rarely used even once a month and stays packed away so I usually forget I own one.

    I am waiting for the day when more of society realizes how toxic this behavior is.

    I would love a no-cell phone town where they don’t exist anywhere in public or in front of your face.

  10. It so great more is being done to raise awareness for FOBO and nomophobia. Without our phones we do definitely feel like we are missing a limb. Phones have become part of our lives and it our mission to not let it consume us. We all must find a way to find a balance between disconnection and connection because there is no way anyone can go cold turkey and let go of the phone. More awareness needs to be brought to attention to the psychological impacts this phone addiction has. Many don’t realise that this addiction is becoming a mental health issue and not a funny term to use as excuse for our addiction. Glad to see you linking the research and study done for people to look further into it!
    Check our website out – http://faceyourfobo.wordpress.com/ we are trying to tackle this big issue!!