Mobile Anxiety Syndrome – how is the mobile changing our psychological emotional state?

Ever lost your mobile – followed by a sense of utter panic? Left it at home and had to go back, despite being late for the office because you can’t live without it? Need to check it every 5 minutes in case you’re missing something?

Or are you one of thousands of parents who have given their kid, as young as 5, a mobile? Yep, 10% of 5 year olds now have a mobile (uSwitch survey), which says a lot about the parents.

The average age for giving a child a mobile is 11, followed by anxious parents looking on in despair as their child becomes glued to it every moment of the day.

Then join the millions who had an addiction or are suffering from M.A.S. (Mobile Anxiety Syndrome) – though MAD may be a better title.

Mobile facts

94% of the total adult population of the UK have at least one mobile phone (Ofcom) – yep many of us have two! Currently there are over 30m smartphones in the UK.

The mobile has also replaced the camera, video camera, address book, calendar, alarm clock, laptop… add to that what apps can do and you have the electronic equivalent of a Swiss Army knife.

Additionally, as most smartphones now have NFC (Near Field Technology) which allows you to touch to activate apps or websites instantly, to pay or use your phone as a ticket like an Oyster card, it is in fact becoming the most important tool in our lives and one we really can’t live without.


Mothers main reason they give their kids a mobile is fear based. “Just in case something happens”.


Unknowingly, they are instilling their own fear and anxiety into their kids by making them scared that they may be kidnapped by a peadophile or assaulted. In both cases no kid would get a chance to use it, and ironically, giving a kid a mobile increases their chance to be mugged.

The most likely demographic to fall victim to mobile phone theft are children aged 14-17 and young adults aged 18-24 (around 4%, double the average), with women in the 18-24 bracket at the highest risk (around 5%).

The proportion of Mobile phone thefts from a personal mugging in 2012 were up from 31% to 46% on 2011 figures. 25% of adults, by the way, would physically fight a thief to get their mobile phone back.

With mobiles being the first screen for social media it means kids are now easily exposed to cyberbullying. 95% of social media-using teens who have witnessed cruel behavior on social networking sites say they have seen others ignoring the mean behavior; 55% witness this frequently (PEW Internet Research Center, FOSI, Cable in the Classroom, 2011), yet only 7% of parents are worried about cyberbullying, even though 1/3rd of teenagers have been victims of it.

Mobile Babysitter

47% of mums admitted they used the phone to entertain their kid (BabyCentre survey).

Further evidence from the BabyCentre research shows that 20% of mums confess that they are “addicted” to their smartphone.

Mobile Envy

An article in Psychology Magazine pointed out that besides the syndrome of missing out from the social circle, people felt their lives were lacking. Looking at their friends they were led to believe they were all having an “amazing’ time. It was all party and fun. We all know that classic Facebook pose people put on  – big smiles, wide eyed, arms out. The reality is less so, most people use Facebook to hype up their image and a study into social media language showed that people use far more dramatic words like ‘amazing’ than they would normally, “wow last night was just awesome, we had an amazing time and the entertainment was fantastic,” translated comes out as ‘we had a nice time in an ok bar listening to a cover band.

Nomophobia (no mobile phobia)


Fear of being separated from your mobile phone is called “Nomophobia”, and a study by the Post Office found that nearly 53% of mobile phone users in Britain (13m people) tend to be anxious when they “lose their mobile phone, run out of battery or credit, or have no network coverage”. The study found that about 58% of men and 48% of women suffer from the phobia, and an additional 9% feel stressed when their mobile phones are off. 73% of people feel panic when they believe they have lost their phone. 7% claim to feel sick

55% of women (mostly women) would rather leave the house without makeup than their mobile phone (Kelton Research commissioned by TMobile).

84% of people couldn’t go a day without checking their phones (Time Magazine).

Death by Mobile.

There has also been a dramatic rise in road accidents due to mobiles, both among kids and adults. In Canada you can now be fined for texting while walking.

Mobile phones are now linked to more road deaths than alcohol and recently there was the case of a fatal accident where it was proved that the driver, who wasn’t killed, was texting while driving.

It has defined what we regard as ‘important’. The killer driver claimed that she was texting because it was “important” to reply to her friend, in reality the conversation was idle chat.

In another incident a woman pushed her push chair in front of a van because she was too busy talking on her mobile to pay attention to the road. Thankfully the baby wasn’t killed.

A report by AXA reveals that there has been a dramatic rise in the number of children killed and injured on UK roads, due to mobile phones, girls being more prone than boys. Children, the most common age is 11, crossing the road are distracted by texting friends, tweeting, surfing the internet, playing games or visiting Facebook instead of paying attention to traffic.

Mobile Distraction

The mobile has become a massive distraction because of social media with growing evidence that this distraction is reducing productivity, having a negative affect upon society and deliver questionable benefits.

According to a survey carried out by uSamp, “nearly 60% of work interruptions now involve either using tools like email, social networks, text messaging. One report by Learn Stuff claims social media is costing US businesses 650 billion dollars a year in lost productivity! A social media interruption occurs every 10.5 minutes on average, and people waste 41% of that time on Facebook.

I have had to ban using Twitter or Facebook during working hours and the difference is dramatic. However, I recently had an intern who tried to quote her ‘human rights’ so I quoted my rights to send her home. I should add that she has a serious aggressive disorder.


Schools have a massive problem with mobiles, which is why so many have banned them during the day. The constant need to communicate and not be left out of the conversation means they are in effect addicts of social chat. In one school where I did a session for the Idea Foundation they confiscate the mobile for 24 hours if anyone is found to have it on in a lesson. One teacher told me that one kid, who was your classic hard guy, “ weeped like a baby and pleaded to have his phone back.” On being refused he turned to violence.

An analysis of the kids messaging revealed that there was little content (mainly BBM), the equivalent of gesturing.

However, in other schools kids are being allowed to use tablets as this is the way they access information. Be honest, who really needs to know the capital city of every European country when you can look it up in 10 seconds?

A Force for Good

For all the problems associated with the mobile, that middle England, middle class Daily Mail readers like to highlight, it has changed our lives in so many positive ways.

From the story of a mountain climber who texted a friend at a dinner party to get rescued to people filming incidents that have led to prosecution, changes in law or international condemnation like the recent gas attack in Syria. The mobile is now the weapon of truth and freedom. Social media means bad and injustice news travels fast and there is nowhere to hide. Even governments now fear the mobile now there’s a camera in every pocket that can send an image or film global in seconds.

Marketing and the Mobile – the biggest challenge we face

There’s been a lot of debate between old school and the new school, between push and pull thinking. The old school still preferring intrusive, disruptive techniques (which one blogger referred to as ‘marketing rape’), while the new school believing you need to win the customer over  (the art of seduction) with approaches like ‘advertainment and ‘info-tainment’.

The biggest myth we have in marketing is thinking that marketing works just by being there. “I know where you surf”. Wrong, direct marketers learnt that having an address isn’t marketing, engaging consumers through smart thinking and good creativity is. Which begs the question, why are so many mobile ads really bad ads? No strategy, poor creativity, and little power of engagement?

Research by a leading research company into digital ads reveal that the single most important factor in effectiveness isn’t data but… creativity.

Already we are discovering that mobile is proving a hard platform to market through, as Facebook have discovered. In desperation they have started dropping ads in the feeds, but is it really working?

The future of connecting brand  to consumers via mobile – the utopia every marketing director is chasing at the moment – may not lie in just placing ads, after all that’s a traditional methodology of disruption.

The other issue, especially with social media is that the space is social – not commercial. Research shows most people don’t want ads and even resent brands invading their personal space – not that you need research for that, any consumer psychologist would tell that. Or check the growing number of downloads of software like AdBlocker.

So the challenge lies in HOW can we engage consumer through the mobile, or are we the bad guys that won’t be invited to the party?

Touch not disrupt

Engagement is more likely to come through touch (or tap) NFC technology. Clear Channel has over 10,000 Adshels fitted with NFC tags (and QRs for Apple owners – the good news is that Apple should have caught up by next year and put NFC on all their new phones).  Most smartphones have NFC readers and auto activate on touch.

A recent campaign, Man vs Machine, has proven that when consumers see an ad they like they seek to engage and will touch the NFC tag. Good news for big media. And unlike a mini ad on your mobile, posters stand out and get noticed.

Data vs Consumer Psychology

If brands want to win hearts and minds, not use handcuffs, the mindset marketers need to adopt is not thinking data will deliver the customer.

Data does deliver very useful insights but is useless to predict what happens when the unexpected happens – like trends, it’s always behind the times. Yet on mobile data is being pushed, misleadingly, as the magic wand of marketing.

Understanding the psychology of consumers and how to engage them is the missing link, and critical to effectiveness, think consumer psychology 80%, data 20%. Any salesman will tell you, insights gives you an advantage but it’s 80% down to the skill of the salesman to emotionally engage the potential customer. Get the mix right and once engaged – through whatever ad medium – they will come to you. Pull not push.

For Good or Evil.

While the media debates if the mobile is improving society or damaging it, if we marketers want to be engaged in the mobile space we need to step back and take both a pragmatic and imaginative look and rethink our approach.

Because it is the pioneers that will win in the space, not those aren’t prepared to take risk and push the boundaries.



Research Tom Earl


Dumb woman falls in water feature texting.