Nomophobia and the Artificially Generated Stampede

Every year, a few new words pop up in the English dictionary.  “Nomophobia” might be a contender in 2018.  It stands for “NO MObile PHOne phoBIA” — an abnormal, irrational fear or source of stress stemming from an inability to communicate using one’s cell phone.  Whether there’s no coverage or your mobile device is dead, that’s some scary stuff!

Cell phone addiction appears to be on the rise.  There’s ample anecdotal evidence that the compulsion to constantly use one’s mobile device has a negative impact on work or study, life and relationships.  As a result, self-absorption is on the upswing.

In 2017, 77% of Americans owned smart phones.  That’s a significant increase from 35% in 2011.  That trend line is growing, not receding.

When people invoke the negative impact of cell phones, they usually focus on the dangers of distracted driving.  Some worry about the long term prospect of brain cancer, although such claims appear to be widely debunked.  Others point to more general themes of introversion and the tuning out of society.  A new South Korean study demonstrates a correlation between nomophobia and higher degrees of depression, insomnia, anxiety and impulsivity.  We’ll focus on the latter two emotions in a little bit.

People often ask me two very specific questions about the “artificially generated stampede.”

“Well, assuming it’s a cellular-driven panic in a stadium, how would the perpetrators get everyone’s cell phone number?”  Rather than bothering with a lengthy explanation, I’ll just refer you to the AGSAF website.  I’ve written plenty of articles that explore the prospect of a wireless carrier hack, opt-in notification abuse (Amber alerts, weather alerts, etc.), Stingray technology and mass tri-lateration, social media saturation, phishing scams, viral hoaxes, and so on.  Simply stated, with the current state of technology, you do not require a person’s cell phone number to transmit real-time information to their mobile device.  To believe otherwise, exposes a dangerously naive and very linear perception in the wireless age.

The other question I often get… “Well, assuming a significant number of people received an imminent threat via their cell phone (bomb threat, emergency evacuation order, imminent danger, etc.), do you really think everyone would just spontaneously panic and run for their lives?”  My customary response goes something like this.  “I don’t know.  It’s hard to say.  It would likely depend on several factors: the quantity, saturation and sophistication of the attack vectors and the ability of the malicious hoax itself, to become “convincingly decentralized.”  For example, if I received a mysterious text alert that reads “There’s a bomb in the stadium,” I’m honestly not sure what my response would entail.  I imagine I’d survey the crowd and seriously examine the behavior of those around me.  However, if I received an unexpected phone call from my Aunt Barbara, and she’s screaming information about active shooters, begging me to exit the stadium immediately… well, let’s just say I’d be inclined to take her concerns more seriously.  The credibility factor increases substantially if there’s a trusted, personal frame of reference.

In case you haven’t noticed, stories about hoaxes and fake news are becoming increasingly common.  And just for the record, there are roughly a dozen ways to push wireless information into large crowds.  My concerns go far beyond phone calls and text messaging.

Now if Donald Trump tweeted, “Hijacked planes might be targeting NFL stadiums.  Get those fans outta there!  NOW!!!”  Honestly, I’m not sure how that one plays out.  Because even though the threat is generically possible, it’s still uncharted territory.  There is no real-world contingency plan for the wireless, technological equivalent of shouting “FIRE” in a crowded theater.  I imagine mankind would react in their usual fashion.  Assuming there was an unprecedented tragedy… first, they’d cry.  Next, they’d pray.  Then, they’d place blame, address the underlying issue and make attempts to heighten the population’s level of situational awareness with regard to this new found threat.  Think in terms of “see something, say something,” except on a much broader scale.

One thing I do know.  Mankind has a historically bad track record when it comes to acknowledging hypothetical threats in the realm of public safety.  Token example: 9/11.

Back to nomophobia.  I think it’s safe to say that smart phone ownership and cell phone addiction are on the rise.  If the specific concerns regarding anxiety and impulsiveness are accurate, other emotions would likely go hand-in-hand.  Nervousness, trepidation, agitation, hysteria.  And that would seem to lend greater credence to the prospect of herding instincts resulting in an artificially generated stampede.