This fall, with millions of students attending fully-remote classes, a hallmark of teen social life and anxiety—FOMO or "Fear of Missing Out"—is yet again on the rise. From their social media feeds, teens can see their peers having fun both in and outside of class...without them.
FOMO refers to feelings of anxiety that arise from the realization that you may be missing out on rewarding experiences that others are having. Evolutionarily, staying up to date with what others in your “tribe” are doing can be beneficial, but in modern life, FOMO can cause chronic stress.
The stress of FOMO begins in your teen’s amygdala, the brain’s most primal emotion and long term memory center. When teens become preoccupied with the feeling that they are not good enough to be “included” by their peers, they can spiral into thoughts driven by FOMO. This may cause them to obsessively check social media, insist on breaking COVID rules to hang out with friends, or act out in other ways.
All of this is natural, but FOMO can be particularly challenging for teens because they are navigating new social dynamics and their brains experience stress more intensely than an adult's brain.
If you’re worried your teen might be experiencing FOMO, here are 4 tips to help your teens cope:
1. Discuss with your teen how they’d like to stay connected
56% of teens worry they will lose connection with their friends during online school. Discuss with your teen ways they would like to stay connected with their friends while respecting your household’s rules around COVID precautions. Consider outdoor hangouts for your teen and their friends, zoom game nights, or online study groups. Study groups may also have many additional benefits for teens such as keeping each other accountable when it comes to school work.
If your teen doesn’t want to socialize, that’s okay too! Some teens are thriving in this quieter social period because they have their own space. Instead of focusing on why they aren’t connecting with friends, check in gently with your teen: Ask them what's keeping them busy to learn about their hobbies and interests. Discuss their self-care strategies to learn about how they unwind or destress. If your teen doesn’t have any outlets, you can suggest ways you relax or find activities together.
2. Have clear rules around socializing during COVID
Depending on the circumstance, you may allow your teen to go out and meet their friends. More than ever, it’s important for you to lay down clear ground rules ahead of time. We recommend establishing the Three W’s rule where you always know: where they are going, who they will be with, and when they will be back. This is not an invasion of privacy; it’s common courtesy. As a parent, safety is the top priority when your teen is going out, and now it’s also about your collective safety. Having clear expectations up front helps reduce negotiation in the moment and foster mutual respect: your teen will have more autonomy while you have more peace of mind.
3. Encourage dialogue and perspective taking
Obsessively spending time on social media can be a sign of FOMO. If your teen seems to be more focused on social media than usual, try engaging them in a conversation about it. Perhaps ask, “What content do you like the most on social media? What makes you feel good when you use social media? What parts of social media don't feel great to you?” and prepare to listen without judgement. Many parents have strong opinions about social media that differ from their teens’ experiences. Jumping in with judgements of whether a certain thought or behavior is “right or wrong” will shut down the conversation.
Once your teen is done sharing, feel free to follow up with your own thoughts. Discuss with your teen about how most people curate only the good memories for social media, leaving an impossible standard to live up to in real life. Share about your own FOMO insecurities, and remind them that most of their peers are at home and experiencing the same emotions they are. Social media isn’t problematic until we believe we are the only ones not having a “picture perfect life”.
4. Replace social media use with other enriching activities
If your teen is really struggling to keep FOMO at bay, try limiting their social media use. Of course, this is easier said than done. For resistant teens, try inviting them to help set the rules and brainstorm replacement activities together. It might sound like, “Hey, I’d like for us to discuss how we can use social media in healthy ways as a family. When can we have a discussion to figure this out?”
This can help your teen feel heard and be ready for an open discussion. If you’re noticing behavior or mood changes in your teen, you can also share your objective observations with your teen to raise your concern and ask them about what’s going on for them. You want to be specific in order to help your teen understand where you’re coming from.
Part of the challenge of reducing social media use is that your teen is unsure what to replace in that time. During your discussion, you can brainstorm together screen-free activities they used to enjoy or may want to try out. Could you go for a daily walk? Can you do a screen free game night? Can you play team sports as a family? Finding other meaningful, soothing activities ahead of time can help teens follow through with their intentions to detox from social media.
5. Seek outside help if you are unable to help your teen’s mental distress
If you are unable to help your teen cope with their emotional or mental distress, you may want to consider finding outside support such as a therapist. Social comparison (the root of FOMO) is the connecting link between social media use and mood disorders such as depression and anxiety. With COVID-induced isolation, the symptoms may worsen over time even when you’re reaching out to support your teen.So if you notice your teen being particularly vulnerable to social comparison and FOMO, it may be worth discussion whether it’d be helpful for them to have professional help in working through their emotional distress and developing healthy coping skills.
Want to chat with a coach about your teen’s FOMO? Sign up here!
To get access to a healthcare provider for substance use disorders or mental health-related problems:
1. SAMHSA’s National Helpline: 1-800-662-HELP (4357), or TTY 1-800-487-4889
To get immediate help:
1. Call 911
2. Disaster Distress Helpline: 1-800-985-5990