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Teen anxiety and the “Fear of Missing Out”

Punk girls checking phones - teen anxiety and the “fear of missing out” 

Dr. Sandra Mendlowitz may not have heard the teen-speak FOMO per se, but it’s something she deals with daily as a psychologist in the anxiety disorders program at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children.

FOMO, otherwise known as the Fear Of Missing Out, describes the anxiety teens feel in the age of social media. Whether they become anxious when they feel excluded from outings with friends, miss a text message, or worry that a seemingly benign comment has been shared online, social media is 24/7 and it can pose a danger for some teens.

“For me, 80 to 90 percent of the comments I make at the end of assessments have to do with issues with texting, online activity, social media and the impact of that not being used appropriately,” says Dr. Mendlowitz, who is also an assistant professor in the Department of Child Psychiatry at the University of Toronto. “We live in a different world than teens,” she says. “Teens have a social media world and a real world. They are constantly inundated with messages from a variety of sources. It is very fast paced and leaves little to the imagination,” she says. This can lead to situations that can cause anxiety, and when you’re a teen, it is easy to be anxious.

“The brain matures at different rates,” says Dr. Mendlowitz. “The fear components in the teenage brain are more developed than the reasoning components. It means that teens are primed for fear and anxiety. The ability to modulate fears only matures in young adulthood.”

So what happens when a teen makes a casual negative remark about a classmate and it gets posted and spread instantly to 100 people? According to Dr. Mendlowitz, “It leads to an undercurrent of anxiety.”

Though social media and cell phones have many benefits, they also pose a risk to teens who don’t know how to manage it all.

How to help

Talk to your teens about their online lives. “Have an open discussion,” says Dr. Mendlowitz. Try saying:

  • “How does this work? Educate me.”
  • “What if someone posts a message and you don’t get to it on time?”
  • “How do you feel when your friends post photos on social media of fun times and you weren’t there?”

Be involved. “Talk about sharing inappropriate and appropriate information and help them understand that what they say and the pictures they post can’t be erased. They have to be careful.”

Remind teens that 10 years from now a potential employer could look at their social media history. “Help teens understand and develop their reasoning filter,” says Dr. Mendlowitz.

Give them a chance to make decisions. “Look on their Facebook page, but give them a chance to clean it up first. This sends a strong message.” If you don’t like what you see, don’t yell. Instead, talk about your concerns and the potential consequences.

Finally, establish set times when electronics are turned off – like at dinner time, during homework or while on vacation. “Create rules around cell phone use, but don’t remove it unless it’s as a last resort. It’s what teens fear most.”

Does my teen have anxiety?

Common signs of anxiety are:

  • agitation
  • inability to focus
  • physical symptoms, such as stomach aches.

If you’re concerned, speak to your pediatrician or family doctor for a referral to a specialized doctor or clinic. “Take your teen to see someone who specializes in anxiety but who also understands social media,” says Dr. Mendlowitz.


Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, December 2014.

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