Nothing is more guaranteed to make a Kenyan’s heart skip a beat than the realisation that they do not have their phone.
What happens next is usually a swift hand thrust to the place the phone is supposed to be. Rapid touches follow and at that point, dread sets in.
Only Kenyan roads can describe in finer detail the numerous times people have had to cut short their trips and return to “Ground Zero” — home or the place last visited — in a bid to reunite with their phones.
If you have ever gone through that, then you are most likely a victim of nomophobia (short for “no mobile phobia”), which experts describe as the anxiety that comes with being separated from one’s phone.
Smartphones have been around for two decades and psychologists have been analysing how they are affecting the human mind.
Besides nomophobia, the behavioural scientists have also documented the phantom vibration syndrome, where a person thinks their phone is ringing or vibrating when it is actually unstirred.
Then there is Fomo (“fear of missing out”) where a person who is away from their phone fears that a lot has happened across the globe and they are not there to witness it.
Some have even come up with Fobo — “the fear of being offline.”
Lifestyle spoke with a number of Kenyans on Thursday, chosen randomly, and all of them confessed that their days cannot run normally if they are away from their smartphones.
“I can’t stay without a phone because my job depends on it. The moment I leave it, business will come to a standstill,” said Ms Charity Njoki, a businesswoman in Nairobi.
We asked Ms Jane Nderitu, an electronics saleslady, to describe how she feels when her phone battery goes flat and she cannot recharge immediately.
“I feel like I’m sick; like there is something I’m lacking,” she said, noting that she has a power bank to ensure such moments do not occur often.
Mr Naftal Omenta, a Finance lecturer at Kisii University’s Nairobi campus, said he has previously had to cut short a journey after forgetting his phone at home.
“I’ve alighted from a matatu twice because all my lecture materials are kept in my mobile phone. The timetable, schedules, everything I want to do in the day is within my mobile phone. So, if somebody took it away from me, it would be a serious setback,” he said.
Such reactions were recently gathered from 301 people in South Korea aged between 18 and 37 years. This was part of a study by three scholars.
The scholars — two from Sungkyunkwan University in South Korea and one from the City University of Hong Kong — released their findings in July in the journal of Cyberpsychology, Behaviour, and Social Networking.
“As smartphones evoke more personal memories, users extend more of their identity onto their smartphones. When users perceive smartphones as their extended selves, they are more likely to become attached to the devices, which, in turn, leads to nomophobia by heightening the phone proximity-seeking tendency,” the experts said after analysing the responses.
One of the items in the researchers’ questionnaire, which mostly entailed choosing values from one to seven, was an open-ended question. Respondents were asked to write in at least 100 characters on what smartphones meant to them.
In the written text, the group that had high nomophobia was found to have a heavier use of the words “lone”, “concentration”, “hurt” and “want”. But that was not all.
“In response to the open-ended question, the respondents in the high nomophobia group more frequently reported having wrist and neck pain due to smartphone use compared with the other group,” wrote the researchers.
They added: “Those in the high nomophobia group were more likely to get distracted from their studies and work. These findings suggest that the problematic use of smartphones can surely induce negative effects not only on users’ physical conditions but also on the overall quality of their everyday life.”
Weighing in on the impact of phone addiction to everyday life, Prof Halimu Shauri, a sociology lecturer at Pwani University in Mombasa, told Lifestyle that smartphones have had a “catastrophic” impact on Kenyans.
“Mobile phones are replacing physical contact with virtual contact. They are replacing physical relationships. They are replacing families with virtual families, virtual friends, virtual colleagues,” he said.
“So, we are becoming more comfortable with people we don’t know physically; with people with whom we don’t have blood relations.”
And according to Mr James Mbugua, a psychology lecturer at Africa Nazarene University (ANU), Kenya now needs a facility that handles phone addicts.
“Whenever dependence comes, it has physical signs and psychological signs. And for us in psychology, the critical concern is: what is the end result of this dependency? The end result is that it can cause other mental conditions that can exhibit themselves in the same way as somebody on a high of drugs or on a high of alcohol,” he said.
One of the things that make people addicted to their smartphones is the fear of missing out. That was documented by four researchers in America last year who released a report after interviewing 308 people on their frequency of using 11 smartphone features that included video and voice calls, texting, social networking and using the internet.
The study, published in the Computers in Human Behaviour journal in May 2016, found that the most used feature was instant messaging through text, followed by browsing the internet then use of social networks.
“Fomo had moderate to large relationships with depression and anxiety,” the researchers from various universities in the US stated.
They also observed that the need for touch, anxiety and depression lead to problematic use of smartphones and that being separated from a smartphone can lead to an increase in a person’s heart rate and blood pressure.
The perception of smartphones as an extension of individuals is what Prof Shauri advises Kenyans to shun in order to break free from the manacles of addiction.
“If you’re using it for work, it should only be on during working hours if your work involves the phone. If your working hours are 8 am to 5 pm and your work involves using the phone, then your phone is on for work purposes.
“If you’re using it for social engagement, you have to save time for social engagement, say ‘for one or two hours in a day I’ll be on WhatsApp or Facebook on my phone.’ Otherwise, if you don’t set your time limits, then the phone becomes very unhealthy and very anti-production,” Prof Shauri said.
One quality shown by those hooked to smartphones, as it emerged from a study involving 290 college students in the US two years ago, is the phantom vibration syndrome where someone receives a false signal of their phone ringing.
“Nearly 90 per cent of them said they sometimes felt the phantom phone sensations, and 40 per cent said it happened at least once a week. Another small study of 169 hospital workers in 2010 found about 70 per cent of them experienced the same thing,” reported CBS News in January 2016.
Locally, psychologists are monitoring the use of smartphones among university learners, according to Mr Mbugua, the ANU lecturer.
“We’re doing an observation about the trends in classes. You find like when you’re teaching, somebody is on the phone. If you get nearer them, they get agitated because they were already in a chat room somewhere and they have fear of being discovered.”
Mr Mbugua said that not even churches have been left behind with some insisting they are more comfortable reading the Bible on the phone.
The BBC reports that in some Asian countries, treatment for nomophobia is among services offered by health facilities.
In a September 2015 article, BBC reported that a 19-year-old student had been undergoing treatment for nomophobia since April 2013.
“My phone became my world. It became an extension of me,” she told the broadcaster. “My heart would race and my palms grew sweaty if I thought I lost my phone. So I never went anywhere without it.”
In China, the government has set up secret military-style clinics to address addiction to social media.
The New York Post reported in 2014 that the Asian giant had “guarded boot camps intended to de-programme hooked teens”.
“This addiction and social detachment is striking nationwide concern across China, so to stamp it out the country is putting teens into military-style camps where internet addicts are kept behind bars, guarded by soldiers to go cold turkey,” said the publication.
Mr Mbugua said Kenya needs such facilities but reasoned that what Kenya needs first is educating psychologists on how to handle such addicts.
“We should call for crash courses for those already in the area of psychology and counselling because unfortunately, many of us don’t understand the non-chemical addiction area,” he said. “We may need even to help the mental health workers to understand these emerging areas because it’s a major concern.”
One person known to have tried a life where there is minimal usage of smartphones is American singer-cum-actress Selena Gomez. The 25-year-old, whose song The Heart Wants What It Wants has received good airplay in some Kenyan FM stations, in December 2016 announced that she would spend 90 days out of touch with technology.
“It was the best thing that I ever could’ve done,” she told InStyle magazine later. “I had no phone, nothing. And I was scared. But it was amazing and I learnt a lot.”
Locally, a number of prominent people also keep off phones for various reasons.
Among them is former President Mwai Kibaki. One of his aides told Lifestyle last year that Mr Kibaki lives by the mantra that any interaction on phone, including mobile money transfers, constitutes intrusion into his private life.
The experts we interviewed said that the modern-day Kenyan cannot do without a phone. The only thing users need is to take precaution.
“Usually, many of the phones we carry have all our details. And it’s like when you don’t have the phone, you feel naked.
“There is also the fear that if it falls into somebody else’s hands, it is like somebody chancing on you suddenly in the bedroom without your clothes on. So, there is that vulnerability that descends on you when you’re minus your phone,” said Mr Mbugua.
He added that people may not do without phones but the critical thing is awareness creation about what phones are doing to lives.
Prof Shauri said: “As long as you own a mobile phone, you can’t live without fear of not having it.”
In his view, what makes people paranoid when they realise they do not have their phones is the fact that there could be secrets contained therein that a person would not wish to be seen by others.
Prof Shauri also bemoaned the impact the phones are having on humans’ brains.
“Modern electronics and the internet have reduced our ability to memorise things. For example, when you ask many people to tell you the telephone numbers of even their spouses, they don’t know,” he said.
“Mobile phones are actually reducing our ability to solve problems. We rely on solutions for problems that have been used by other people by having easy ways of referencing,” Prof Shauri added.
“I can’t afford to be without my phone from Monday to Saturday because I use WhatsApp to reach my customers. If I don’t have my phone, I won’t be working. Should I forget it at home and remember midway, I have to go back for it. But on Sundays when I’m not working, I can do without the phone.
Being in the business of selling phones, I’ve seen how people behave when they lose phones. They are usually stressed. You see someone look like they will run mad. Nowadays, many people have converted their phones to workplaces.
When I’m using my phone, I’m usually on WhatsApp and Facebook. I don’t think I’m addicted but sometimes a person finds him/herself glued to their phone.
I can’t say I usually have the feeling of missing out when I’m not with my phone. But what occupies my mind is that I wouldn’t want to miss a client’s text.”
JEFF JACOB MBUVI
“When I don’t have my phone, I feel like I’m missing something important. I won’t have my usual confidence.
Of all the electronics I have, my phone is my first priority followed by TV. It is through my phone that I meet the customers in my clothes selling business and that’s why Facebook and WhatsApp are my most used applications.
I have observed a number of my friends who are hooked to their phones so much so that they virtually do nothing else. Some of those make for very bad acquaintances and whenever we are together, I feel it’s like I’m being ignored; like I’m not important and the only important thing is what is on the phone.”
“Should I leave home and later realise that I have forgotten my phone, I have to go back for it. I can’t work without my phone. It is my office. All my clients are there; all my prices and products are there. But on Sundays, when I’m off duty, I avoid the phone and do not take calls. Even at night, I switch it off.
I am a mother of three children aged between
“During the General Election I was in my rural village for two days. The place has no internet connectivity and I felt like I was missing out a lot especially on what’s happening around the country and the world. Usually before I start the day, in the morning I get updated of what has happened around the world through Twitter, and WhatsApp and Facebook.
When I’m in class lecturing, many are the times I have got irked by the distraction brought by phones. Sometimes I ask students to put down their mobile phones. Some do; but you find a group of students at the back of the class trying to chat. This is not professional, but at one time I was forced to take away some mobile phones and keep them for some time.
Phones, especially the smartphones, have taken over the life of Nairobians; because these days you’ll find that people buy and sell to a great extent on social media.”
Electronics saleslady, Nairobi
“The reason a power bank is a must-have for me is because when my phone goes off, I can give its battery a lifeline.
I am one of those people who do not switch off their phones at night because I do many businesses. I can lose customers.
I don’t think I have nomophobia. It is business. When I don’t have the phone, I feel like I don’t have business.
Among my friends, I have observed how phones make people addicted. Phones have made people go mad, and it’s usually because of the internet.”
Mobile phone seller, Nairobi
“I’ll have to admit that I’m usually on my phone for the most part of the day. WhatsApp usually takes much of that time. That’s where I get most of my friends and I can chat unlimited. I can’t say I’m an addict; let me just say it’s a choice because it’s something I can avoid.
If it happens that I’ve left my home in Bahati (where sh lives) without carrying my phone with me, I just have to return for it. I feel incomplete without that most critical communication tool.
I do not think Kenya has reached a level where treatment centres for nomophobia need to be set up because most Kenyans are business-minded. They use their phones mostly for business; not just chatting.”