November 24, 2021

What is FOMO?

Over the past week many parents have been paying attention to the testimony on Capitol Hill that accuses Facebook and Instagram leaders of knowing that their social media platforms were detrimental to the mental health and wellbeing of children and teens but concealed their own research findings. This is something that for years now mental and physical health professionals have been warning about. The dramatic increase in increased suicidal thoughts, depression and anxiety coincides with the smartphone and has been exacerbated by social media. I have the great privilege to work with teens every day and so this past week I asked them what compelled them most to be so attached to their phones. All roads seemed to lead back to FOMO. So, today I will share with you what this means and why it’s so important to teens. 

Why is it important to talk to kids about FOMO?

FOMO stands for Fear Of Missing Out. You may think that sounds funny, or that you can relate, or that this is just a teen thing that is novel to this generation. But actually it’s a symptom on the continuum of anxiety. This anxiety is triggered when a person believes that a person or group of people are having a good time and making memories without them. It challenges their security as a person who thinks they belong to a certain group and questions their standing with the members of that group.

In my last notes from the couch newsletter I talked about teens under pressure. This constant pressure extends to being “always on” and accessible. It affects their sleep as many teens are compelled to stay up late on their phones for fear of missing something or not wanting to get off a group chat. It also affects their safety while driving as the compulsion to check their phone and respond to every alert can cause distracted driving. Being available at any time, sharing locations, and responding within a minute of receiving an alert have become the new digital peer pressure. The message is if you snooze you lose.

This cultural nuance and pressure doesn’t just come from your child’s friends, they also come from advertisers. Advertisers know that if they can make a person feel like they may be missing out on something they can get them to keep coming back- and so that is exactly what they do. And with so much known now about the role that dopamine plays in addictive and compulsive behavior, I hear every day about how parents fear losing their child to a screen.

As much as we tell teens that what they are seeing is by and large a highlight reel and that no one’s life is perfect and happy all the time, it is hard not to believe it when they stare at images for hours each day that slowly make them feel badly about themselves and feeding into poor body image, low self esteem and disordered eating. 

So what’s a parent to do? First, make sure you are overtly having these conversations with your tween and teen often- like nearly daily! Repetition is the key and even if they don’t seem to be listening we know that they are so keep the messages going. 

Next, set boundaries. When they first get a phone, create a contract, review it every month, and give them feedback on times they are managing screen time well. When you notice excessive screen usage and a change in their mood, appetite or energy, impose a break. They need you to do this for them, they are not likely to do that for themselves. It would be biologically and socially very difficult for them to stop using their phones or get off social media without a parent leading the way.

Last, watch your own social media and screen time habits. Ask yourself what you are modeling and how your own use may be feeding into addictive type behaviors or experiencing FOMO yourself. Adults are vulnerable to FOMO too. I have had countless parents and friends share that they feel badly about their own lives sometimes when they get off Instagram. It just usually has to do with houses, boats, vacations, cars and careers. 

If last week’s testimony proved anything it is that there are a lot of factors at play making it more challenging to manage the mental health and development of today’s children. But one thing remains constant and that is the need for parent’s leadership in their children’s lives. Don’t be afraid to do a family digital detox. Don’t be scared to set limits. And know that teaching boundaries in one area will teach your teen to set them in other areas when they need it.

Happy Parenting!

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