Smartphone-loss anxiety disorder is a real thing—and there’s a cure

Don’t let it out of your sight.
Don’t let it out of your sight.
Image: Reuters/Kim Hong-Ji
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Most of us don’t need science to tell us that we are obsessed with our smartphones. Still, there’s plenty of research out there describing the dopamine effect—a neurotransmitter that sends pulses to your brain’s reward and pleasure centers with every new text or tweet—and the widespread addiction to that momentary pleasure, which has been compared to cravings for nicotine, cocaine, and gambling.

But a new study offers a different explanation for our obsession. It’s not just addiction that makes people clutch their smartphones so tightly, the researchers argue, but also the anxiety of losing devices that are loaded with huge amounts of highly personal data. And, they say, there’s a cure to that (reasonable) anxiety, or at least a way to lessen it—back-up systems and security measures that safeguard our data.

Published in the latest issue of the International Journal of Mobile Communications, the study was conducted by two Canadian researchers at McMaster University in Ontario. They explain that the growing processing power of smartphones means that we are all carrying around enormous stashes of what they called “assets”—sensitive and indispensable data. This could range from personal and professional contacts to treasured photos and confidential bank account information.

As anyone who has lost a device knows, the loss of those “assets” can make an inconvenience into a truly traumatic and anxiety-provoking experience. Beyond the temporary electronic disconnection, the data contained on a phone can present a privacy and security risk, if it finds its way into the hands of a malicious third party.

The Canadian team found that only very few users knew about ways to protect their data in a situation where their smartphone system is lost or stolen. Others, they said, were “simply in denial of the risk of their losing their phone.” The researchers suggest a social awareness campaign to encourage smartphone users to make their devices more secure.

To get you started on the path to less smartphone-loss anxiety: Enable the remote device lock system, which activates the password locking option on your phone, preventing others from accessing your data. Other options include encrypting your smartphone by navigating the security settings on either your Android or iOS system, and using a program to ”time bomb” your data, deleting and disabling it after a certain time period.