Nomophobia affects student well-being, academic performance

In his travels across the galaxy, Anakin Skywalker, the futuristic galactic warrior of the Star Wars movies, designed and inducted as part of his crew See-Threepio – in short, C-3PO – a programmed humanoid robot fluent in more than seven million forms of communication.

In the Star Wars saga, C-3PO served as a protocol specialist. Some of his other attributes included devotion to the call of duty and loyalty to his master as he fought rival space knights.

But the unfolding scenario shows how existing artificial intelligence technologies and software development processes are impacting different sub-groups in a global society.

For instance, there are indicators that the smartphone and its integrated functionalities not only emerged as the most preferred communication device in the world today but, as in the case of C-3PO in the cinema, the smartphone has become an integral part of many people’s daily lives.

In about a decade, the smartphone, with its portability, high performance and novel methods of executing tasks, has made it easy for people to participate and engage in a range of activities such as social networking, social marketing, online shopping, gaming, betting and data processing.

Smartphone addiction causes anxiety

According to Dr Harry Barton Essel, a senior lecturer in the department of educational innovations in science and technology at Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Ghana, smartphones are almost indispensable to university students, considering their ability to manage and control artificial intelligence devices compared to other sub-groups in society.

In the study ‘The relationship between the nomophobic levels of higher education students in Ghana and academic achievement’ that was published by PLOS One on 18 June, Essel and his associates say students’ extreme use of smartphones is resulting in addictive behaviour and nomophobia.

Nomophobia, a term that is derived from ‘no mobile phobia’, is used to describe a psychological condition in which people develop anxiety or fear caused by losing mobile phone contacts, running out of battery power or being detached from the internet.

Using a self-reporting questionnaire to measure the prevalence of mobile phone separation anxiety and pathological fear at the six campuses of Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, Essel and his associates found that 96.4% of students reported moderate to severe levels of nomophobia, while only 3.6% reported none.

At an average score of 99.7%, the level of nomophobia prevalence is the highest among on-campus women students. Measuring overall gender distribution, females reported a marginally higher nomophobia score of 84% compared to the score of 79% for males.

The study noted that, at an average score of about 82%, students at the college of humanities and social sciences had the lowest levels of nomophobia prevalence, compared to the highest score of 87% of students at the college of agriculture and natural resources.

The study showed that WhatsApp is the smartphone application of choice, used by about 40% of the students. Most students said WhatsApp’s affordability makes it a popular choice as it allows them to send unlimited texts while incurring only internet costs.

Other applications that are frequently used include Twitter (36%), Instagram (33%) and YouTube (31%), as well as TikTok (5%), Facebook (3%), and Games (3%).

Over-use lowers academic performance

What is significant in the study is that the researchers were able to establish a direct association between nomophobia and academic achievement.

About 60% of students who obtain a first-class pass reported an absence of nomophobia, as compared to 4% of their counterparts who had an ordinary pass, 12.5% in the lower second-class, and 25% in the upper second-class category.

Although Essel and his associates did not quantify the average number of hours students at Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology spend on their smartphones, in a 2015 study at Ruaha Catholic University in Tanzania, students reported that they spent five to seven hours each day on their smartphones, either speaking to friends through WhatsApp or on other social communication sites.

According to the study, ‘Smartphones’ Effects on Academic Performance of Higher Learning Students: A case of Ruaha Catholic University’, addiction to smartphones in higher education institutions in Tanzania is a reality.

One participant said: “When I’m doing assignments and a WhatsApp notification comes, I usually forget everything I was doing and start interacting with the person or group that sent me the message.”

What is emerging is that, whereas the smartphone may not have reached the level of bipedal C-3PO in terms of movement, thinking and communicating intelligently, the smartphone is fast building a symbiotic presence in the lives of university students, with potentially devastating results where their academics are concerned.

In his study, ‘Smartphone addiction among university students in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia’, Fahad Alosaimi, professor of medicine at King Saud University in Saudi Arabia, argues that there is a significant correlation between a negative lifestyle and poor academic achievement that could be attributed to the use of smartphones among university students in most parts of the world.

In his assessment, Alosaimi concluded that university students in Saudi Arabia are at risk of addiction to smartphones, a phenomenon that, he said, is associated with negative effects on sleep, levels of energy, eating habits, weight, exercise and academic performance.

Conducting the first study to address nomophobia, Mohammed Qutishat, a lecturer in nursing studies at Sultan Qaboos University in Oman, found nomophobia was unacceptably high among university students.

In the 2020 study, ‘University students’ nomophobia prevalence, sociodemographic factors and relationship with academic performance at a University in Oman’, Qutishat noted that persons who suffer from nomophobia use smartphones excessively and often acquired more than one device, and always carried a mobile charger lest the connection with the internet be broken.

According to Qutishat, these people become anxious when they cannot use their phones, be it because the phone is not available, a lack of network coverage, technical problems or insufficient credit.

“Such individuals excessively check for messages or missed calls and avoid places where mobile phone use is prohibited or coverage is limited,” the study stated.

But, whether it is in Africa, the Middle East, or any other part of the world, there is evidence that severe nomophobia could affect students’ well-being by causing anxiety, depression, stress and loss of sleep – all factors that can contribute to low academic achievement.

Losing human interaction

Yet, the smartphone is seen as one of the smart systems that, in the future, will exceed human intelligence on tasks such as pattern recognition, visual sharpness, speech recognition and language translation.

Professor Janna Anderson, director of Imagining the Internet Center at Elon University in North Carolina in the US, says that, in the future, artificial intelligence tools will drastically disrupt traditional ways of doing things by providing great opportunities and unprecedented threats to global society.

In this regard, the multiple studies on nomophobia among university students in Africa and elsewhere in the world should be a wake-up call that, while networked artificial intelligence is improving people’s effectiveness, there is also the danger of losing their freedom and human interaction.

The main point to remember is that, in Star Wars, even during the heat of the battle with Darth Vader and his droid soldiers, Skywalker and his mates never handed over control of their spaceship to C-3PO, and the humanoid robot remained a personal assistant to the end.