Could We Please Stop The Moral Panic Over Social Media ‘Addiction’?

Yes, FoMO is real. But it's neither new, nor the end of the world.

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If we learned anything from ex-Instagram model Essena O’Neill’s meta-announcement that “social media is not real life“, hopefully it was that media literacy is an essential skill that many people are still a bit crap at. Given we’re in an information age where we consume about 174 newspapers worth of knowledge daily, we’d benefit from getting good at effective digestion.

In the wake of commentary and criticism on Essena’s mental health and ‘real’ motives, last week the Australian Psychological Society (APS) released results from their 2015 Stress and Wellbeing Survey. For the first time, these included an analysis of Australian’s use of social media and experience of the fear of missing out, or FoMO: the nagging worry that there’s good stuff happening you’re not included in. Yes, it’s actually a thing, but how much of a thing and should we really be concerned?

The 44-page report tracks how Australians have experienced stress (mostly financial, health and family) and what we’ve done to cope with it (sometimes things that are incongruent to wellbeing), sampling about 1500 people representative of the population over the past five years.

As expected, some media outlets rolled with the tech-fear and moral panic that seems to go with the territory on reporting Generation Screenager, with headlines like ‘FOMO Sending Teens Loco’ and this corker shrieking alarming trends (read: wrongly inferred associations) about social media ‘addiction’ (that word doesn’t even appear in the report), and the threats it apparently poses to life as we know it.

But just like the kerfuffle surrounding the statistics on how carcinogenic those extra rashes of bacon are, the nuances of the report — and, importantly, the reporting of the report — have been diluted down to homeopathic levels, making for shabby clickbait and fuelling a shallow analysis of digital cultures.

Putting aside the fact that some of the methods and statistical procedures used in the study would raise eyebrows amongst the most conscientious third year psychology student, let’s have a look at the results that won’t make the headlines, because: kids using technology wisely isn’t as salacious as comparing it to drug addiction.

Constant Connection Is Not An Addiction

56 percent of the 210 teens surveyed were considered ‘heavy users’ of social media because they logged into social media over five times a day, with 25 percent saying they were ‘constantly’ online. This mirrors results from Pew’s Teens, Social Media & Tech study of over 2000 young people from April.

Teens spent an average 2.7 hours on social a day, with adults coming in at 2.1 hours. Keep in mind this data focused only on social media use, ignoring email and other screen-mediated activities; recent research from Common Sense Media found young people were spending nine hours a day online.

But don’t let a simple metric of screentime point towards an epidemic of technology addiction. The American Academy of Paediatrics recently ditched their prehistoric screentime guidelines in favour of more holistic principles of mediating kids’ technology use – something I’ve argued was long overdue.

The nuances of our technology and social media use need examination. We need to stop talking about how much time we’re spending online, and start talking about what we’re doing there: the micro-activities and interactions that lie beyond the simple platform and length of time, and the context of the choices we’re making on the internet.

Social Media Is Bad For My Relationships, Said Almost No Teenager Ever

Social media affords great opportunities for humans to connect, yet this connection is a double-edged sword. When we’re linked in with others (pun intended), it’s an opportunity to share and support one another. But although it can be a means of coping with stress, it’s also a source of it.

Social media is still pro-social for most young people using it; that’s not to ignore the problems that can arise, but it’s important to keep those problems in perspective to the gains made.

Here’s the good news:

– 84% of teens said social media has helped strengthen their relationships;

– 82% said that they use social to connect with like-minded people, through forums and content sharing;

– 78% said that they connect with people from around the globe who share their interests.

Remember being the only kid in your year who was interested in an obscure band or poet, and feeling like you were the only person on earth who did? Remember that feeling when you first discovered your ‘tribe’? Social media is helping young people find their networks sooner, which caters to that hankering need for belonging and being ‘gotten’.

As a school counsellor in a busy metropolitan high school, I breathed a sign of relief when I learned that 72% of teens felt empowered by social media to seek help to manage stress. For many young people, their need for support doesn’t neatly fall inside school hours. On weekends, or late at night when they can be or feel more vulnerable, technology plays an important role in problem solving – especially when it’s supported by strong wellbeing programs in schools, which promote help-seeking behaviour and de-stigmatise issues relating to mental health, domestic violence and sexual exploration.

Keeping Up With The iPhoneses

In a report published in 2013, the FoMO experienced by teenagers significantly outranked that of adults (of whom only 6% admitted to being constantly connected to their social streams); two-thirds of teens who identified as ‘heavy users’ reported being ‘bothered’ by missing opportunities to meet up with mates, and to feeling it was important to share details of themselves when they were having a ‘good time’.

While FoMO might seem like a close relative of #FirstWorldProblems, it’s a phenomenon that even the relatively conservative Australian Psychological Society considered important enough to investigate. FoMO plays on a primal need for belonging and love, which we derive from our communities, and which drives much of our modern angst. FoMO also plays into the need for esteem, the positive regard from others that we get through our achievements, and the subsequent recognition (read: likes).

So social media is a perfect medium to tap into FoMO, with its steady stream of public news, events, photos, jokes and memes. In fact, making sure you’re in the loop with in-jokes was the highest ranking aspect of FoMO, with 78% of heavy users saying this was important. Status update anxiety also provokes the feels, with 71% of teens reporting the need to keep up with friends’ activities, even when on holiday. (Of course, the questions didn’t ask whether we might be aiming these #holiday #beach #blessed posts specifically to illicit FoMO in others – that’s a whole other fascinating area of research.)

58% wondered if they were spending too much time ‘keeping up’ with social feeds, which demonstrates young people’s capacity to smell the roses, and self reflect; it’s this more mindful relationship with technology that Digital Nutrition seeks to foster.

How Do We Fix It?

So if FoMO arises from our constant connection with millions of others (and our subsequent ability to compare ourselves with them in real time), what’s the remedy?

As with so many modern afflictions, mindfulness offers an opportunity to be present in the moment, without the judgy inner-voice. And while it’s bordering #inspo zone, throwing in an ‘attitude of gratitude’ can help us be more aware of what we do have, rather than chasing something bigger/more/better.

And then there’s the sleep thing. The impact of technology on sleep has been well-documented. We’re connected right up until the moment our eyes close, with 57% of teens remaining online in the 15 minutes before sleep. Like the ringing in your ears after a loud gig, the bright flurry of sensory inputs continues to zap through our synapses long after we’ve powered off for the night.

Sleep disturbance and disruption can have huge impact on our cognition and emotions; throw in a developing brain and a cocktail of hormones, and young people who haven’t slept are on auto-pilot by recess. Setting a ‘Digital Sunset’ or digital curfew is another easy fix.

But perhaps the best antidote to FoMO is JoMO: find joy in missing out, joy in being offline, joy in being present to the little things, joy of not giving a fuck, joy in staying home, joy in simple pleasures. Rather than magnetising ourselves to fear, how about we attune ourselves to joy? Maybe we can even feel #blessed without the #sarcasm.

Jocelyn Brewer is a psychologist with a special interest in the psychology of technology.