Put your phone down. Or do you feel FOMO?

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But its symptoms are more varied and apply both to children and adults. When is a kid more prone to suffering from FOMO? And how can its development in adolescents be prevented? Psychologist Jarmila Tomková explains its implications on children’s mental health.


How would you define ‘fear of missing out’? Does FOMO differ from regret, envy or social exclusion?

FOMO is associated with all of these feelings. People may feel regret and experience indecisiveness, or they think they are not such good decision-makers and are not living as fulfilling lives as others. This syndrome usually appears when people are going through a difficult time and are not completely happy with themselves. As a result, they focus more on monitoring their surroundings, to find reassurance that they are good enough and not missing out on anything. The key here is the anxiety and feelings of dependency that FOMO causes. You do not observe the lives of others with ease and joy. On the contrary, it puts you in a depressive state of mind.


There is a close link between FOMO and social networking sites, which are actively used mostly by younger generations. Can FOMO develop in older people too?

Yes, it can. People struggling with FOMO feel an urgent need to know what is going on around them, while being dependent on that knowledge. For adults, this can manifest itself in different ways – such as constantly watching the news and not being able to miss a beat. There is a difference between watching the news all the time, unable to leave anything out, and watching the news every day with the peace of mind that you do not need to know everything. Nevertheless, adults may feel tempted to check social media for reassurance that they are not missing activities, acknowledgment, contacts with their friends, colleagues or current trends.


Can you share an example of a situation in which an adult might be in such a position?

If one feels insecure at work, one might check the work group chats much more often, and tend to be more active and dependent on posting in online workgroups. It depends on the psychological stance in which one is doing these online activities.


How does FOMO affect different age groups of children? If FOMO is more likely to develop in a crisis or with low self-esteem, can it pose a higher risk for teenagers?

In adults, FOMO can develop when you feel alone, your partner leaves or you get fired. At that point, you may doubt yourself and have the feeling of failing, which can draw you into the FOMO syndrome. Teenagers are particularly vulnerable, because their self-esteem is more fragile, as all the research in developmental psychology confirms. Self-evaluation at this developmental stage depends a lot on what others think and do. Therefore, teenagers are most afraid of being left out. They need to find their place and feel accepted by their surroundings. The fear of exclusion can be the cause of their always being on social media. They seek self-affirmation and constantly interact with other people. 


Yet on social media, they might see only that everyone else is doing something great?

Exactly, and then you start messaging other people because you want to be a part of that world, going from feeling relaxed at the beginning to constantly checking chats and whether or not someone has messaged you back. So, loneliness and frequent use of social networking are the breeding grounds for developing FOMO. And while an adult can handle these feelings better, a 14-year-old girl does not deal with them that easily.


FOMO can lead to concentration disorder, with extreme cases leaving people feeling like they can not stay at home and must go out. Is there a risk of ignoring our basic needs, such as sleep and rest?

That is an excellent point. The feeling of not being able to lie in bed and the need to check out what others are doing can lead to keeping yourself awake and not being able to sleep, rest or stay still. But everyone needs to alternate between action and doing nothing.


To what extent is this behaviour culturally determined?

Fear of missing out is partly a result of current trends in society. In many shows watched by teenagers, a similar narrative is present: the main characters often go out and party, looking perfect and always doing something. If you live in a city, you may also feel a desire to go out all the time – the city is alive, vibrant, always on. We are driven by digital marketing, which makes people adopt certain attitudes, buy things, or even desire artificially created values.


Has anything about these tendencies changed since the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic?

Not really. On one hand, the pandemic kept us at home, but on the other hand, we had to do a lot of activities online. There were a lot of online courses, which may have reinforced the need to stay connected. Some people started watching shows to keep up. Similarly, you might do yoga, just because everyone else is doing it. But the trigger is still the feeling of anxiety. COVID did not change that much. Many people feel anxious now, or their previous anxiety has been exacerbated. It happened due to fewer opportunities for social activities. Thus, we have lacked opportunities for building self-esteem and experiencing joy. People are more at risk of FOMO in a pandemic.


Is it possible to minimise FOMO without stopping the use of related technology?

When parents notice their children are constantly using their phones, feel the need to look at the screen several times an hour, and keep track of what’s going on, it doesn't mean that they are suffering from FOMO. If teenagers are in love, they are always looking at their phones – there is no syndrome. However, if youngsters have self-doubts, are feeling low or acting out, you should talk to them. That’s half the prevention. The first step is to educate them on the issue. Explain to them that, while the risk of FOMO is associated with social media, it was there before (so they don't get the feeling we’re dismissing social media) – talk about it as a social phenomenon, rather than ban social networking.


What else can parents influence?

We can influence the amount of time our kids spend on social networks. It is good to limit this already with young children. Then we can make them aware of how they feel when they spend half an hour or four hours on Facebook or Instagram every day. We can do a little workshop for the kids, where we involve research findings, our own experience, or mention how they do it in other families. Help them realise that some profiles or content on the internet do not make them feel good. Explain that they don't have to look at it, or let them know how advertising works. Help them make it through that critical period of life with as few wounds as possible. Puberty is not a pleasant time, let’s face it.


What does a parent need to do so that children are not quite as full of desire for others’ approval, can accept themselves as they are, and not be so easily influenced by the realities of social media?

They can, for example, continuously point out what is unique about their children, tell them how much they like them, appreciate some of their qualities – but beware of performance-oriented praise – instead focus on their creativity and skill, perseverance and mindfulness. Let children feel that they are original beings and already good enough as they are. That way, children will know why they do what they do and understand what their real needs, sources of energy and motivation are.

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