'No Mobile Phone' Phobia Tied to Sleep Problems in College Kids

Megan Brooks

September 03, 2020

"Nomophobia" — the fear of being without a mobile phone or out of mobile phone contact — is extremely prevalent among college students and is associated with poor sleep habits and fatigue.

In a study of more than 300 college students, nearly 9 in 10 (89%) were classified as having moderate to severe nomophobia. Greater levels of nomophobia were significantly linked to daytime sleepiness and more behaviors associated with poor sleep hygiene.

"My undergraduate research team came up with the idea for this study," study investigator Jennifer Peszka, PhD, professor of psychology at Hendrix College in Conway, Arkansas, told Medscape Medical News.

She explained that her students had been looking at the impact of technology use in the 2 hours before bed, and hypothesized that 'cell phone addiction' might play a role in sleep problems.

Incidentally, "that group of students were all pretty high on nomophobia themselves so they were really interested in the outcome," Peszka said.

The study findings were presented at Virtual SLEEP 2020, the 34th annual meeting of the Associated Professional Sleep Societies.

A Likely Suspect

The study involved 327 undergraduates (mean age, 19.7 years) recruited from introductory psychology courses and campus newsletters. They completed several questionnaires, including the Nomophobia Questionnaire, the Epworth Sleepiness Scale (ESS), and the Sleep Hygiene Index.

Nomophobia was prevalent, with mild, moderate, and severe nomophobia reported by 10%, 83% and 7% of students, respectively. Only one student reported no nomophobia at all.

Peszka said the fact that 89% of students had moderate or severe nomophobia is "concerning," given a 2012 study suggesting that 77% of 18- to 24-year-olds had nomophobia. This phobia "very well be on a rapid rise," she lamented.

Greater severity of nomophobia was significantly correlated with greater sleepiness measured by both the ESS (P < .05) and the Associated Features of Poor Sleep Hygiene (AFISH) daytime sleepiness item (P < .05).

Jennifer Peszka, PhD

More severe nomophobia was also related to decreased motivation (a commonly reported symptom of insufficient sleep) and with more maladaptive sleep hygiene behaviors (including using technology during sleep time, long daytime naps, inconsistent wake and bed times, using bed for nonsleep purposes, uncomfortable bed, and bedtime cognitive rumination).

Prior research has shown that smartphones may lead to compulsive "checking" habits, compulsive usage, increased distress, and potentially addictive behaviors. Active phone use at bedtime has also been implicated in disrupted sleep.

Nomophobia is likely to be an important consideration when treating sleep disorders and/or making any sleep hygiene recommendations, Peszka said.

Proliferation of "Night Owls"

Reached for comment, Rajkumar (Raj) Dasgupta, MD, University of Southern California Keck School of Medicine, Los Angeles, said this is a "very timely study with COVID-19. Right now, more than ever, technology is a double-edged sword. I'm a father of three kids and, for now, technology is the only way some kids are going to be socializing and learning."

Yet a foundation of good sleep hygiene is keeping a nightly sleep routine, said Dasgupta, who wasn't involved in the study. 

"Right now, it seems like all my sleep patients are becoming night owls and sleep time is becoming more and more delayed because there is so much news to keep up with. Also, you may be stressed at night and you may not have the motivation to wake up early in the morning," said Dasgupta.

He said it's important to counsel patients to "put technology away at night. That goes for kids and adults."

Support for the study was provided by Hendrix College Charles Brewer Fund for Psychology. Peszka and Dasgupta have disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

Virtual SLEEP 2020: 34rd Annual Meeting of the Associated Professional Sleep Societies: Abstract 0180. Presented August 28, 2020.

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