A proposed study on the effect of nomophobia on work-related behaviour

As modern computing devices have become ubiquitous in our daily lives, researchers across multiple disciplines are wakening to the various effects these technological advancements are having on our social beings. The present study investigates the effects of nomophobia (a negative outcome associated with unhealthy attachment to smartphones) on altruism in work-setting. This study will be of interest to practitioners and academic alike who are interested in understanding how nomophobia, which is an emerging social phobia, affects work-related behaviors. A repertory grid style survey instrument was administered to a sample of students, enrolled in the final year of attaining a Bachelor of Business degree from a higher education institute of repute in Pakistan. The results indicate that individuals who exhibit the symptoms associated with nomophobia are less likely to exhibit altruistic behaviors towards their peers. The discussion addresses the implications of these findings for practitioners and directions for future research.


The past decade have noticed rapid advancements in information and communication technologies. This advancement has been most noticeable in the proliferation of social networks (Raj et al., 2018), and rise in the computing abilities of smartphones to a level where they can rival the powers of traditional computers. These advancements have also enabled the usage of smartphone – beyond their basic functions – as communication devices, as sources of entertainment, productivity tools, and providing access to news and information. All these developments have resulted in individuals spending more time in front of these electronic screens. According a 2015 study some individuals check their phones over 80 times a day (Andrews et al., 2015), which translates into more that 5 hours of day of smartphone usages (Lu, 2017). Along with the advantages that smartphones have afforded their users, their prolonged use has been associated with several physiological, psychological, social, and neurological negative outcomes (Huber et al., 2018; Lissak, 2018; Twenge et al., 2018a,b). The seriousness of these negative consequences is such that in the 5th edition of Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders a “specific phobia” related to the usage of smartphones, nomophobia,

was included in the list of “situational phobias” (Arpaci, 2019). Nomophobia or “no smartphone phobia”, is defined as “the fear of being unable to use one’s smartphone or being unreachable through one’s smartphone” (Ozdemir et al., 2018, p. 1323). In terms of generational research nomophobia is associated with millennials (Docu, 2018), and is most likely to affect individuals in their adolescent lives rather than in their adulthood (Sachs, 2018). This implies that the generations succeeding the millennials i.e. the Generation Z (born between 1995-2012) and Generation Alpha (born between 2013 and 2025) will also be exposed to the negative effects associated with nomophobia.

The literature on nomophobia is in its nascent stage, and is primarily found in the domains of psychology, computer science, and medicine. This is evident from the data available of SCOPUS and The Web of Knowledge (Giustini &

Boulos, 2013). A summary for this data is presented in Figure 1. Figure 2 shows chronological growth in the number of papers published that contained the term nomophobia in them. There is a clear upwards trend in the interest in the construct. The interesting deduction that can be made from this data is that the term nomophobia has yet to make its way into the broader literature of industrial and organisational psychology, and more importantly the literature on human resource management. This should be concerning considering that by some estimates more than half of the global workforce will comprise millennials (Obradovic et al., 2017). Similarly, The proportion of Generation Z in the global workforce is also expanding as more and more of them graduate and join the workforce (Novkovska & Serafimovic, 2018)

Modern life is defined by the excessive dependence on different technologies for performing day-to-day activities. The dependence on these technologies is manifesting in terms of various behavioural departures from previously established norms. Nowhere is this effect of technology on modern life more evident than the effect smartphones are having on the everyday routines. Researchers are awaking to the need of studying the behavioural manifestations of excessive use of smartphones. This effort has led to the labelling of these negative consequences associated with excessive smartphone usage as nomophobia, which stands for no-mobile-phone phobia (Argumosa-Villar et al., 2017). In what follows a review of the current state of knowledge concerning nomophobia. This starts with providing a definition of the term and a discussion on its antecedents. This is followed by a brief review of its outcomes. The final objective for the review will be to make a case for management researchers to vest their interest in the construct of nomophobia. As a first step towards this objective the current study aims to investigate the linkage between nomophobia and altruistic tendencies which are the bedrock of important work-related behaviours such as OCB and knowledge sharing. The commonly cited definition of nomophobia is that it is “the fear of being unable to use one’s smartphone or being unreachable through one’s smartphone” (Argumosa-Villar et al., 2017, p. 128). Although primarily concerned with the use of smartphones, the definition also extends to the use of personal computers and other virtual communication devices (King et al., 2013). This is also reflective of the shrinking computational differences between traditional desktop systems (which were not mobile), and modern mobile devices. With the increasing computational power of the new mobile devices (smartphones, tablets, and smart watches), the software that were bound to desktop hardware are now becoming more accessible. Although nomophobia is considered a relatively new conceptualisation of the phenomenon, its does draw direct parallels to other conceptually similar constructs such as mobile phone addiction (Hong et al., 2012; Choliz, 2010), problematic mobile phone/smartphone use (Augner & Hacker, 2012; Lopez-Fernandez et al., 2014; Takao et al., 2009; Wang et al., 2015), mobile phone dependence (Chóliz, 2012; Ezoe et al., 2009; Toda et al., 2006), internet addiction (Griffiths, 1998, 1999; Yellowlees & Marks, 2007), social media addiction (Blackwell et al., 2017; Cabral, 2008; Hawi & Samaha, 2017), and the overarching concept of technology addiction (D’Arcy et al., 2014; Hamissi et al., 2013; Turel et al., 2011). The previous line of evidence is reflective of the overall breadth of the literature that deals with the behavioural consequences of extended attachments to smartphones and their application, and it will bode well for the future development of this literature to unify them under the single construct of nomophobia.

The extant literature also highlights that the emerging generations are more likely to contract nomophobia than the fading generation. Walsh et al. (2010) offer a plausible explanation for this generational difference, they note that an individual’s self-concept is in the developmental stage during his/her childhood. During this stage individuals are more prone to peer-pressure and are more likely to exhibit conformity behaviour to fit in with the social-group. So, it is more likely for young adult, as compared to matured individual, to form an attachment with his/her smartphone, because he/she sees others in his/her proximal group doing so. Argumosa-Villar et al. (2017), on the other hand, report that findings correlating nomophobia with age are equivocal. A possible explanation for this evident lack of evidence might be attributed to the fact that very little research on nomophobia is carried forward using an adult sample (Mitchell & Hussain, 2018)

The notion of self-concept described by Walsh et al. (2010) above can be traced to the Extended Self Theory put forward by Belk (1988). According to this theory “an individual’s possessions, whether knowingly or unknowingly, intentionally or unintentionally, can become an extension of one’s self” (Clayton et al., 2015, p. 121). According to this view individuals exercise a certain level of power or control over certain external objects, such as smart devices. Ownership of such external objects allows individuals to exert maximum control over these inanimate objects. The more use individuals derive from these objects the more attached they become to them and perceive them as extension of their self. The is the same sort of attachment a solider might develop with his/her weapon, where the weapon is seen as an extension of the body like any other limb.

Clinical studies have investigated the comorbidity of nomophobia with other pre-existing conditions such as panic disorder (PD; King et al., 2010), and social phobia disorder (SPD; King et al., 2013). The data used in these studies came from clinical reports of patients who were diagnosed with these disorders. With PD, the patients who faced difficulties in communicating with others, relied on ICT devices for communicating with significant others, and in doing so reduced the panic attacks that are associated with psychical contacts. Patients with SPD see themselves as socially inept. Such patients are also likely to take advantage of using ICT devices, such as smartphones, to access the internet. They are more comfortable establishing and maintaining relationships online, something which they find to be very difficult in their normal lives. The results from both studies combined seem to show that patients with pre-existing conditions are more likely to develop a stronger attachment with their smartphones, and display symptoms associated with nomophobia.

In addition to the above cited clinical disorders, finding from the study conducted (Chiu, 2014) indicate that different life stressors can also trigger addictions to smartphones. Chiu (2014) categorised the life stressors into academic, interpersonal relationship, family and emotional stress. The results from this study show that family stress and emotional stress directly contribute to mobile phone addiction. Academic stress and interpersonal relationship stress did not register a direct effect, but the relationship was established between these stressor and mobile phone addition when social self-efficacy is added as a mediating variable. In this regard the results from this study by Chiu (2014) support the findings from King et al. (2013) study, in that individuals with better social skill are less likely to develop an addition of using smartphones.

Walsh et al. (2010) provide a comprehensive review of the various antecedents of involvement with mobile phones, a construct that is embedded within the broader construct of nomophobia. According to them some individuals see the mobile phone as extension of their self-concept. Similarly, the extensive customisations that can be applied to the mobile phone (as simple as choosing a certain wallpaper, to gold platting their phones which might cost in the thousands) allows individuals to use their mobile phone as expression of their identity. Finally, Walsh et al. (2010) also include external validation as a plausible reason why individuals develop a strong attachment with their cell phones. The need of belonging and developing strong social attachments in an important motivator, one that can lead to strong involvement in the mobile phone, if this is a behaviour that is re-enforced by a focal person’s proximal group. Walsh et al. (2010) also provide an interesting discussion on how technological addiction falls within behavioural and pathological addictions. They describe behavioural addiction as a focal person’s over-attachment to certain psychological activities. This discussion also informs our understanding of nomophobia when considering that it also is a form of technological addiction. According of Walsh et al. (2010) behavioural addictions have a lesser effective impact on a focal person behaviour (such as with-drawl, social conflict, interference with daily routines), than pathological addictions, which may lead to other pathological behaviours such as substance abuse, gambling, and insomnia.

Further evidence on the linkages of psychiatric disorders and addictive technology use is provided by Andreassen et al. (2016), who administered a online cross-sectional survey to 23,533 adults, in order to determine the causal linkages between various psychiatric factors (i.e symptoms of Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), anxiety, and depression) and problematic attachment to technology (in this case social media usage and games). They found support for their primary hypothesis and concluded that there indeed were indications that the set psychiatric disorders they tested for had a significant causal relationship with the development of problematic attachments to technology. Furthermore, the results from this study also indicate that single more like to develop attachments to games, whereas single females are more likely to develop addictive attachments to social media.

Nomophobia and work-related altruism

Altruistic behavior are defined as voluntary acts directed at organizational foci without the expectations of any formal rewards (Bui et al., 2020). These behaviours play an important role in generating social capital (Nahapiet & Ghoshal, 1998) within an organization, which in return helps the organization to achieve sustained competitive advantage (Chuang et al., 2016). Organizations rely on their employees altruistic behaviour for the generation of public goods such as knowledge (Luu, 2019). A growing body of literature, within the broader literature on human resource management and organizational psychology, has concerned itself with identifying the antecedents of altruistic behavior (Bui et al., 2020). The current study contributes to this literature by identifying nomophobia as a possible inhibitor of altruistic behaviours.

The body of literature on contextual performance also highlights the importance of altruistic behaviour. Contextual performance is defined as “set of interpersonal and volitional behaviors that support the social and motivational context in which the technical core of work is accomplished” (Findley et al., 2000, p 634). Reilly & Aronson (2009) note that organizations have stated giving more value to contextual performance in this age of virtual teams and project-based work. Helping behaviours such as altruism, which contribute to contextual performance, are not part of a persons job requirements, but play an important role in developing the social and psychological environment of the organizations within which individuals perform their jobs (Motowildo et al., 1997).

Very few studies have have investigated the effects of nomophobia (or any of the related constructs) on helping behaviour such as altruism. In study based on sample of Chinese undergraduate students Hao et al. (2020) reported that problematic mobile phone use is negatively associated with altruism. This they argue maybe due to the reason that individuals who are always connected their mobile phone develop social bonds through the social networking features afforded to them. This in return reduces their motivation to develop additional social contacts outside of their online social network. Hao et al. (2020) noted a number of limitations of their study, omitting the most important one which is their use of self-report questionnaires. The present study furthers this line of research by adopting a non-Chinese sample and also by administering an instrument where the participants report on the behaviour of relevant others, thus lowering the risk of respondent bias.

MacCormick et al. (2012) investigated the linkages between smartphone usage and employee engagement. Individuals who are engaged at workplace are more likely to perform better mentally, socially and physically. Organizations are encouraging employees to use smartphone enabled applications for work purposes. At the same time, while working online employees also have access to other smartphone enabled applications which leads to excessive use of the displaying dysfunctional consequences. MacCormick et al. (2012) provides evidence that smartphones are sources of work engagement behavior (functional and dysfunctional). During the interview majority of the interviewees responded that the use of technology via smartphones enhanced their working by increasing work flexibility and mobility. On the other hand, rest of the respondents were of view that excessive use of smartphones especially applications which have internet connectivity has increased unhealthy competition which result in negative behaviors supplemented by low quality of face-to-face communication. Although not specifically mentioned by MacCormick et al. (2012), the results from their study can be used to extrapolate that excessive use of smartphones can lead to a decrease in pro-social behaviours such as altruism.

1      Methodology

The challenge with researching negative behaviours such as nomophobia is that self-reported data could be contaminated with respondent bias. Due to the social stigma associated with such negative behaviours, respondents are more likely to provide socially desirable responses. In order circumvent possible respondent biases this study adopted a repertory-grid based approach for gathering data. Repertory girds are rating scale type instruments that were developed by George Kelly, as tool to test the implicit beliefs systems that individuals employed for assigning meaning to the world around them (Fransella et al., 2004). This techniques requires the participants to divulge their perceptions regarding a set of elements (that might include people, locations, and products), with regards to different constructs relating to these elements (Brook, 1986).

A typical repertory grid consist of two main parts, the elements with regards to the data is being collected, and the constructs or descriptions of those elements that focus of the research (Rawlinson, 1995). The constructs are presented as bipolar dimensions (Brown & Chiesa, 1990), allowing the respondents to rank the elements based on these dimensions. Traditionally the elements and the constructs can be supplied by the researcher or can be elicited from the respondents (Rawlinson, 1995). For the present study the elements were elicited from the participants (a list of five close friends), and the constructs were supplied in for of the measurement scales used for measuring nomophobia and altruism. The specific design used by this study is categorised as Full Context elicitation, as it requires the respondents to rank all the elements into groups (Rawlinson, 1995).

2      Sample and Scales

The sample for this study consisted of 59 students (12 female, 47 Male) who were enrolled in evening MBA program at a public sector university. The participants owned cell phones for an average of 5.08 years, and had access to Mobile data for average of 2.9 years. Majority of the respondents reported have access to WiFi at their home (67.8%). The top cellphone usage reported by the respondents was for communication purposes (53%), Information gathering (24.44%), for accessing social media platforms (15.56%), and only 7% of the respondents reported that their primary usage of their smartphones was for entertainments purposes. To the question of how often the respondents responded to social media postings on daily basis, almost 23% of the respondents reported that they did so more than three times a day, where as the rest reported usage less then that.

The participant were asked to identify five of their closest friend and report about those friends mobile usage habits and their tendency of being altruistic. The subjects identified included almost 17% females, and the average age of the subjects identified was 23 years. A majority of the subjects identified had owned smartphones for 5 years or more, and had access to mobile data. The subjects identified spent an average of 8 hours on their smartphones, with the respondents reporting that a significant number of the subjects spent more than the 8 hours of average daily usage.

The questionnaire was presented in the form a repertory grid where the respondents were asked to rank their friends on the different bipolar scales. As each participant was reporting about five different individuals a total of 295 observations (59*5) were collected. After removing incomplete and erroneous responses a total of 191 observations were included in the final analysis.

Nomophobia was measured using the scale developed by Chóliz (2012). This scale is suitable for the measurement of nomophobia as it is a direct cause of increased mobile phone dependence. The other reasons for adopting this scale is its brevity, and the simplicity of its language is suitable to the non-English speaking sample adopted for this study. Previously the same scale was used by (Yildirim, 2014) to for the purpose of screen participants who displayed nomophobic traits. Altruism was measured using an abbreviated version of the self-report altruism scale developed by Rushton et al. (1981). As the sample consisted of MBA students only items that students could relate to were used for the purposes of this study. A sub-scale of the main self-report altruism scale was used to keep the overall instrument concise. Finally, the instrument was presented to the participants in the presence of the researchers who offered explanation of the questions to the participants who reacquired further clarity.

3      Analysis

The instrument developed for the current study was based on the style of repertory grid. Although typically repertory grids are used as part of qualitative analysis, Heckmann & Bell (2015) demonstrate the use of linear mix model technique for analyzing the data from multiple repertory grids. The present study adopted the procedure described by Field (2011) for running the linear mix model analysis of the data that was collected. The data collected had a inherited grouping, as all respondents provided data about 5 of their friends (elements of the repertory grids). The data was formatted such that each row contained data with regards to each individual friend identified by the respondents. This design is typical referred to as the repeated-measure desing (Field, 2011). Repeated-measure designs are used if the data violates the assumptions of general linear model that different conditions should independent. Because the data collected for this study was such that multiple records of data (conditions) was collected from the same individual, that is why these data points are not independent of each other.

As first step towards linear mixed model analysis Field (2011) recommend checking whether their is significant variation across the grouping variable, which in the case of the present study was the respondents acting as observers and reporting on their friends mobile phone usage behaviours. Table 1 produces the model fit analysis data which compares fixed intercept model (which assumes no variations across the grouping variable), and random intercept model (which assumes that there is a significant variation across the grouping variable). The data from the table suggest that the fixed intercept model (which has lower AIC and BIC values) is a better fit for the data then the random intercept model. In such a scenario where there is no significant differences across the grouping variable Field (2011) recommend running a simple regression or ANOVA.

Table 2 represents the results of the regression analysis. The data indicates that nomophobia has a significant negative effect on altruism (t = -2.22, p = 0.028). This indicates that individuals in whom nomophobic traits have been observed are more likely to be perceived as less altruistic.

1      Discussion

The advances in technology is allowing organisation to create knowledge resources that will help them to achieve sustained competitive advantage. At the same time these advances in technologies have brought with them challenges in the shape of behavioural changes that are being observed in the general public, but more specifically, and of interest to HR practitioners, in the workforce. The current study focused on one such challenge, nomophobia (no mobile phone phobia), which is an aggregation of a number of different constructs under one umbrella, all of which relate to unhealthy attachments to smart phones. Although very few previous studies have identified any linkages of nomophobia with work-related behaviour such as altruism, the pattern that is emerging from these studies is that nomophobia is negatively associated with prosocial behaviours such as altruism. For example Ferguson (2015) conducted a meta-analysis of 101 studies that looked at the excessive use video games (most of which is now being done on mobile phones, and thus contributing to nomophobia) and concluded that it led to a decrease in prosocial behaviour.

The results of the present study are aligned with the these findings from the previous studies. Individuals who are observed as being nomophobic are less likely to altruistic. A plausible explanation for this is that nomophobes are more likely to get their need for social connectedness (Ryan et al., 2017) fulfilled via online sources are less likely to create social bonds with offline sources. Furthermore the work environment provides a number of challenges (structure of work environment, time constraints, and office politics) for the creation of positive social connections (Kaplan et al., 2014). These challenges further drive individual to online platforms for fulfilling the social connectedness needs.

Limitations and Implications

The present study was of exploratory nature. There were very few previous study that had looked at the relationship between nomophobia and prosocial work-related behaviours such as altruism. The study does not take into account other variables that can shape the effect of nomophobia on altruism. Future researchers can develop casually complex models to provide a better explanation of these linkages between nomophobia on altruism. The instrument design for the present study was also a departure from the traditional self-report style of instruments. The repertory grid style instrument used is reliant on the participants ability to accurately compare individuals against each other. Interpersonal difference between the participants would mean that some participants would be providing far better comparisons of their friends than others. Future attempts to replicated such a study should include a measure of the participants capability for making informed observations, and controlling for this ability while reporting on their findings. The results of the present study have important implications for practitioner as more and more generation-z members join the workforce. As these entrants to the workforce are more likely to be inflicted with nomophobia, proactive organization should consider developing features of their working environments that can mitigate the negative effects associated with nomophobia. The findings from this study and other study also merits that organizations add a nomophobia test into the selection criteria as highly nomophobic individuals might not contribute to developing the social environment of the organizations. Future research studies can include nomophobia as element into existing models that predict important work-related outcomes to recast these models in light of this changing social and technological context.


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