Skip to main content

No, Smartphone-Loss Anxiety Disorder Isn’t Real

But people are anxious about losing their phones, even if they don’t do much to protect them.
(Photo: Stefan Klauke/Flickr)

(Photo: Stefan Klauke/Flickr)

A press release for a new research paper caught the eyes of some news sites recently with the headline, “Smartphone-Loss Anxiety Disorder.” The resulting articles trumpet it as “a real thing,” and “you could be prone to it.” But while many can relate to the annoyance of losing a phone, calling it a disorder might seem like an over-diagnosis, especially to anyone who knows someone with a diagnosed anxiety disorder.

That’s because it’s not true. There is no such thing as smartphone-loss anxiety disorder, according to the paper’s lead author, Zhiling Tu of McMaster University, who provided Pacific Standard with the raw data analyzed in the study.

Of those respondents, 20.1 percent had lost a cell phone, smart phone, or laptop computer one time—an unlucky (or forgetful) 5.9 percent reported losing devices more than once.

“We did not research on ‘loss anxiety’ or ‘disorder,’” she says. “We just tried to analyze why people would cope with device loss and what factors led people to cope with such [a] security threat.”

The actual research paper, forthcoming in the International Journal of Mobile Communications, touches on an increasingly important topic, considering how much personal data, including photos and videos, is stored on these devices. More and more people (40 percent, according to the researchers' survey) use personal mobile devices for work, which puts even more confidential information—for the company and its clients—at stake.

Despite all this, “no academic research has been published on the threat of mobile device loss and theft, even though security issues have drawn much attention,” Tu and her colleagues write.

The survey included 339 responses, a representative sample of U.S. mobile device users. Of those respondents, 20.1 percent had lost a cell phone, smartphone, or laptop computer one time—an unlucky (or forgetful) 5.9 percent reported losing devices more than once.

For the most part, people agreed that losing their devices would be a big problem:

  • 57 percent agreed that data stored in the lost mobile device could be subject to unauthorized use, while only 21 percent disagreed. (The remainder chose "neither agree nor disagree.")
  • 61 percent agreed that their privacy would be invaded because of confidential information on the device—only 18 percent disagreed.

However, these concerns didn’t necessarily encourage the respondents to learn how to protect their devices:

  • 72 percent did not know their device could be set to automatically erase data after a number of failed login attempts.
  • 47 percent were unaware of remote wiping capabilities.

Some people took moderate steps, such as limiting the amount of company information or remote access that could be gained through the mobile device. From a corporate standpoint, it’s worrying that only 61 percent of respondents say they would notify any affected parties (company, customers, etc.) immediately after a device was lost or stolen.

So while the eye-catching “anxiety disorder” headline was technically incorrect, it appears that lax mobile security should be a source of anxiety for both businesses and privacy advocates.

UPDATE — August 27, 2014: David Bradley, author of the press release, wrote in an email to Pacific Standard, "I was trying to be a little tongue-in-cheek with the headline, but perhaps this was not the best title to choose." The headline has now been changed to, "Coping With Smart Phone Threats."