A Cure for the Fear of Missing Out?

The agitation and restlessness that can follow switching a smartphone off, which is punishing to witness, does look very similar to withdrawal symptoms as the individual struggles with the disconnection from 'the stream'.

For parents, teachers and even clinicians like myself, one of the greatest challenges in helping someone manage their use of devices is that any restriction leads to an agonising fear of exclusion and isolation that is commonly called 'FOMO'; the 'Fear of Missing Out'. This is quite distinct from an experience of losing rewards from social media or games, which one might consider a withdrawal response. So what is it, what causes it, how seriously should we take it and how should we as parents, teachers and clinicians manage this?

The agitation and restlessness that can follow switching a smartphone off, which is punishing to witness, does look very similar to withdrawal symptoms as the individual struggles with the disconnection from 'the stream'. For many young people the benefits of such downtime is simply too high a price to pay for their not knowing about the latest update, video or game, and their participation in the social world is felt to be partial and inferior. Even when they can recognise that less use makes them feel relaxed or refreshed, even brighter in mood, the fear of missing something drives them back to smartphone, tablet or console.

It can feel cruel to impose such restrictions on an individual young person, even if to all observers the young person appears to benefit from these restrictions. The solution young people prefer is that of the 'the server going down', so that everyone is offline and that no-one can receive or create updates, so there is no missing out or anxiety. Being disconnected from the online stream of news and developments is like being the disabled boy in Robert Browning's version of The Pied Piper who regrets all of his life how he could not follow the other young people into the mountainside; although it remains a mystery as to how positive it was for those that did follow the Piper into the mountain. Providing a solid offline alternative to this 'endless, happening now' experience is hard to achieve for adolescents and for those trying to impose limits to their connectivity.

There have been two recent developments which suggest that a systemic approach to the lure of endless connection could possibly be rather effective, either at school level or even nationally through policy and legislation. This is encouraging news for those who are seeking to improve the well-being of adolescents and are struggling to curtail their connectivity levels.

Firstly, recent research from the LSE suggests that in schools where mobile phones are banned there is an overall improvement in attainment, and strikingly, the improvements are far greater for those that are disadvantaged. Indeed, banning phones in schools appears to reduce attainment inequalities that are the product of disadvantage. Whilst further investigation is clearly required, the advantage of this approach is that all pupils at the school share the time-limited deprivations, which lessens the fear of missing out. This also raises the questions as to whether there is also scope for something at a wider, perhaps national, level.

Secondly, is a recent example of instigating a cultural change at a national level through policy development and legislation, which can be found in France. In March of this year, a law was passed that criminalised fashion houses and websites that were glorifying thinness and promoting anorexia. This was in response to growing concerns about access to pro-anorexic content; according to the last report from EU Kids Online, between 2010 and 2014, the number of children who had accessed pro-anorexic content rose from 9% to 13%. More young people saw pro-anorexic material than had seen cyberbullying, yet in some quarters it is still pornography and cyberbullying that invariably grab the headlines.

The usual debates regarding freedom of speech, the lack of evidence that supports this intervention, or cries that it cannot work, delayed the legislation, but it is now, after some debate, in place. Whether enforceable or effective, only history can decide, but as an intervention to help promote healthier body images and greater body satisfaction in young people, we must learn from what follows this legislation, and I very much hope researchers are poised to tell us. And soon. There appear to be more than 725,000 individuals in the United Kingdom struggling with an eating disorder, and admissions to hospital have increased by 34% over the past 10 years. The latter is not easily attributed to genetic influences so some aspect of culture is clearly playing a part in the development of these problems.

Permission to switch off or not to look are hard won today, and for many, installed in the mind is a figure, whether it be your boss, spouse, partner or child, that induces guilt and shame if you try to. For young people, this may take the form of an inner-gang that mocks any thought of disconnection and so not knowing what is trending is unthinkable. Yet we have clues that group, organisational or cultural interventions that give us permission to switch off or not see toxic content, could improve our life chances and well-being. Commuters had it sussed when they made use of quiet carriages on trains, which is socially sanctioned and shared. Similarly, switch-off habits shared by all within a family (the digital Sabbath approach) seems easier to implement than focussing on just one individual.

Perhaps we need more examples of clean spaces and times, whether in restaurants or during evenings or holidays, which help individuals who just cannot make the decision themselves to switch off, but respect it when it is offered to them. It is then not just managing the fear of missing out, but of being more present, alive and effective when connected. Clearly new technologies are not just blindly positive for all, and critically, knowing when not to use devices may be a cornerstone to digital-wellbeing.

Before You Go