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FOMO, digital status seeking and social media

A person’s relationships with other people have always been an important factor their mental health. But when most of our social interactions occur on social media, what impact does that have?

With us on “Take Care” is Jacqueline Nesi, research fellow in psychiatry and human behavior at Brown University. Nesi studies social media and mental health, particularly the role of social media in adolescents' mental health and development.

Nesi says how social media impacts mental health is one of the big questions in psychiatry right now, and a lot of research is being conducted to try to answer it.

The current answer? It depends.

Nesi says researchers are finding that it depends both on a person’s individual vulnerabilities to certain experiences and their actual behavior on social media.

Social media can be used in so many different ways, which can make it hard to make blanket statements about social media’s impact.

And, each person has their own susceptibilities to various mental health issues, making it hard to determine how much social media use is contributing.

One of the issues people experience with social media use is FOMO -- or “fear of missing out” on enjoyable experiences.

Nesi says some preliminary research shows FOMO can be related to anxiety. But researchers don’t know if youth who are already more anxious are more likely to experience FOMO or if it’s the other way around. Nesi says she suspects it’s a little of both; that there’s a reciprocal relationship between the two feelings.

Social media can amplify experiences people have always had, Nesi says. Because social media is so public, it may increase the intensity, frequency, or likelihood we experience feelings we already have or would have had anyway.

For example, the anxiety caused by the fear of “keeping up with the Joneses” has been around for a while. But Nesi says interacting with social media is a uniquely new experience.

“There hasn’t really been a way before the advent of social media to experience these things in the way we experience them now. It would have been impossible to look at so many different experiences from so many different people in your network kind of all at once in this sort of ongoing, never-ending feed,” Nesi said. “And I think those things are really different and we’re still trying to figure out what kind of impact that’s having on our health.”

While even stable adults can be susceptible to these feelings, the effect on still-developing youth is even more concerning.

As Nesi points out, this is the first generation to have grown up with social media. That means researchers don’t have a true comparison group. And there are no long-term studies yet to see what the impact of social media in the long run.

So some researchers are left trying to compare this generation and their mental health symptoms and development with those of previous generations.

“The challenge with that, of course, is that there are so many other factors that might be coming into play in explaining differences,” Nesi said.

Nesi says some studies show this generation of youth might experience higher rates in anxiety and depression. There has been an increase in rates of suicidal attempts, particularly among young adolescents age 10-12.

“But the truth is we just don’t know at this moment whether that is or is not related to the rise of social media,” Nesi said.

Some studies have suggested that youth who use social media more frequently might be at higher risk. But not every study results in those findings.

Nesi has studied a concept call “digital status seeking,” which she describes as the drive for more likes, retweets, followers, etc., to gain status on social media. These aspects of social media are all very quantifiable. Nesi says all ages can experience digital status seeking, but it’s particularly seen in adolescents.

“We do see there may be some youth who might be doing this in a more extreme way, where it’s very, very important to them that they get these indicators of status online. And I think for those kids it may represent somewhat of a problem, where it indicates that gaining approval from peers maybe more important than deriving self-esteem from peers is maybe more important that deriving self-esteem from their own selves. And that may be where we start to see some issues.”

So, what can parents and other caring adults do?

Nesi says some of the same tools and practices we use in other aspects of parenting work for social media too -- setting consistent limits, establishing clear boundaries, and giving loving responses to your children.

And Nesi says it’s extremely important to communicate with your kids about their social media use. That’s because for many parents it feels new since they didn’t grow up social media, and they may not feel as comfortable with it.

Ask your kids what apps they are using. Who they are talking to? How they are feeling when they use social media?

Monitoring is appropriate, based on development, Nesi says. For a 12-year-old or someone new to social media, parents should be more hands on. For older teens, allow more independence.

But don’t fear, there are positives to social media for adolescents. After all, social media is really the way adolescents communicate with each other.

“We’ve known for a long time that positive social interactions are absolutely crucial for youth development.”