How FOMO became a mental health epidemic

Teen girls are more susceptible to the lure of social media apps and FOMO. Picture: iStock
Teen girls are more susceptible to the lure of social media apps and FOMO. Picture: iStock

A SCHOOL nurse who worked at a prestigious girls’ school in Perth says the fear of missing out is becoming a mental health epidemic among young women, increasingly glued to their smart phones.

Commonly known as FOMO, it is anxiety that you are missing out on the social experience other people might be having as well as a craving to stay continually connected with other people via social media.

Maggie*, who requested a pseudonym to protect the identity of the students she treated, said FOMO was leading to higher levels of anxiety and depression in young girls who regularly use apps like SnapChat and Instagram.

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“We would see upwards of 45 kids a day and 70 to 80 per cent of my workload was helping students with mental health issues,” she said.

“I’ve seen kids get hysterical when you try and take their phone off them.

“Or they deny having their phone with them, and when you check on them in the sick bay, they immediately hide it.

“They lose the plot completely and nine times out of 10 they are just messaging their classmates at school.”

Maggie* said girls were more susceptible to the lure of social media apps.

“Some students have been up until 2am on their phones,” she said.

“They are coming to school distracted and despite schools having a no mobile phone policy they are simply hiding them better.

“It was commonplace for girls in the boarding house to have ‘dummy phones’ to hand in at night.

“The real phone would have a sim card, so if WiFi was not available, they still had access.

“Their phones are constantly pinging and they want to look at it immediately.

“Some are obsessed with maintaining their SnapChat streak. I had one student with more than half a million streaks.

“This digital era our kids live in allows them to communicate in ways and speeds that no generation before has been able to experience.

“But much of this communication is useless, a waste of valuable time and potentially dangerous.”

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Cyber safety expert and clinical psychologist Jordan Foster said FOMO was featured in clinical research as a new phenomenon.

“While the term FOMO is not a clinical term, the concept itself is linked to a heightened sense of anxiety and psychological distress,” she said.

“Young people can experience anxiety, difficulty sleeping and rumination when they fear missing information that their peer group might be receiving.

“We often seen teens checking their phones late at night or first thing in the morning to ensure that they are staying connected with what’s happening online.

“FOMO is largely about a desire not to be excluded, and the fear of this is anxiety provoking for many teenagers.”

Ms Foster said many social media platforms were designed to exploit people’s attention.

‘Apps like these rely on teenagers’ desires to be socially included and not miss out on information to drive their motivation to spend time online,” she said.

“Features such as 24-hour limited stories on both Instagram and SnapChat mean that teenagers have to check the apps everyday to ensure they don’t miss out on information.

“Likes on Instagram also have an impact on the brain, activating our neural reward pathway and telling us that we had a good experience.

“The more “likes” we get, the more our brain tells us to post and engage with apps.

“Social media exploits our vulnerabilities as humans to be included and socially connected, and likes, comments and follows amplify our brains positive experience with these online platforms.

“For a teenager’s developing brain, it’s a potent mix of neurological reinforcement and social inclusion that drives time online.”

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David Gillespie, author of Teen Brain: Why Screens Are Making Your Teenager Depressed, Anxious and Prone to Lifelong Addictive Illnesses, said software makers were creating social media apps that were explicitly addictive.

“Addiction requires two things, exposure and reward,” he said.

“Software makers have been extremely good at understanding how the human reward system works.

“We really like being liked by other humans so every time the like button gets hit you get a teeny hit of oxytocin and you feel great.

“Before these apps the only way to get a feel good hit of social approval was to go out and meet people and get them to like you which is fairly labour intensive.

“Social media companies have figured out a way to simulate social approval without us even going out.”

Mr Gillespie said adolescent girls were biologically more susceptible to become addicted to what he coins “approval porn”.

“Girls are much more sensitive to oxytocin than boys because boys have higher levels of testosterone which blunts the effects of oxytocin so they get less of a surge,” he said.

“Also during puberty until your mid-20s the production of the hormone GABA is dialled right down which means teenagers are more easily able to become addicted to anything.

“They essentially have no brakes that would normally stop us turning reward into addiction.”

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Mr Gillespie said a social media addiction in adolescence spelled trouble in later years.

“We’ve known for a long time if you become addicted to something as a teenager you are twice as likely to remain addicted for the rest of your life,” he said.

“We have taken addiction for teens, such as drugs, alcohol and cigarettes, from being something only the adventurous few encountered (those prepared to leave their bedrooms) to something every single teen encounters every day on their devices.

“ And teenage anxiety and depression has doubled in 10 years because now every member of a generation is addicted rather than just some.”

Mr Gillespie said the cure to any addiction was withdrawal.

“While I believe schools have brought into the hype that these devices hold a strong educational value what we are actually doing is feeding the addiction issues,” he said.

“Given they are unlikely to be removed from classroom we must move to a strategy of harm minimisation.

“Remove the devices during the holidays, lock them in a cupboard.

“The rest of the time treat them like an old world computer from the 90s. Move them out into a fixed public space.

“Because they are so portable it is easy for them to end up in bedrooms and out of sight of parents.

“You have to remove that opportunity and make sure they are being used where you can always see what is on the screen.”

Mr Gillepsie will speak at Perth College on Wednesday night.

sarah.brookes@communitynews.com.au