Nomophobia

We know you miss your phone, but will it miss you?

Do you get stressed and anxious if you can’t find your phone? If so, you’re not alone. Nomophobia is a distinctly 21st-century phobia and one that may not be immediately recognizable by name. The symptoms associated with it, however, will be intimately familiar to millions around the globe. That’s because this new phobia refers to the anxiety people experience when being out of contact with their mobile device.

Nomophobia may seem to be a truth self-evident to many, and has recently been supported by several studies such as the one conducted by Russell Clayton of the University of Missouri. Clayton’s study asked participants to complete word search puzzles in two conditions: One, to finish the puzzles with their phones on silent in front of them, and 2, they were told the phone was interfering with the experiment conditions and were placed across the room. Halfway through, Clayton would ring the participant’s phone, allowing it to ring six times before hanging up. The result showed that being unable to answer the phone decreased their cognitive abilities and increased both the participant’s blood pressure and heart rate — key indicators of anxiety.

It’s true that the depth of our relationship with our phone varies from person to person, for many our phone has become close to an external part of our brain. We use them to store and organize our lives. From grocery lists to memories, for purchasing household items or airline tickets. Our phones are always nearby. No wonder we’re reluctant to part with them. Security companies are taking note and using the fact that we always have our phones on us as an opportunity for more secure authentication. It turns out that this can be very effective because each of us interacts with our phones in distinct and unique ways that are naturally resistant to impersonation. This uniqueness can be gathered by various sensors in the device and used verify identify people in new ways.

We’re all familiar with fingerprint scans, and perhaps facial recognition. In the future other body areas such as the ear, voice patterns and movements such as walking may become the normal physical biometric that is used to unlock the device and trigger it to send the username and password, or a cryptographic certificate to validate payment or login. These approaches require the customer to enroll the biometric and go through biometric tests, eg. placing their finger on the scanner, or taking a selfie etc.

By measuring and recording factors such as the angle at which the device is held, the pressure applied to the screen or keys, finger plotting, typing and swiping speed, they build a profile of how and when you interact with your mobile device – without collecting personal information that may compromise your security or privacy. Conversely, by establishing an accurate understanding of your interactions with your device, if behavior emerges that is anomalous and not aligned with your regular activity, we discover it and protect you.

These innovations are, of course, a positive industry development. For the 53% of us who experience anxiety without our phones, the fact that our devices can make authentication easier is a win. It’s also a plus for companies who can use our phones to gather the data about us that they need to identify us better, without having to store any personally identifiable information about us. Whether our phones will miss us when we aren’t around might be unlikely, but there is no doubt we miss them!

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