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FOMO, Digital Dementia, and Our Dangerous Experiment

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The following originally appeared on Explore Journal

Silence is God’s first language; everything else is a poor translation. —Thomas Keating1

We have all seen them: the chic couple in a restaurant passionately thumbing their smartphones while ignoring one another, each cocooned in his or her private world. Then there is the etiquette buster at the movies in the seat in front of us, who ignores the prohibition of texting while his smartphone’s retina-scorching screen blinds us. And there is the annoying person in line at Starbucks who cannot stop messaging long enough to keep the line moving. All these individuals have something in common: They may be suffering from FOMO.

FOMO or FoMO is an acronym for “fear of missing out.” It appeared in the Urban Dictionary as word of the day on April 14, 2011.2 FOMO is considered a form of social anxiety—a compulsive concern that one might miss an opportunity for social interaction, a novel experience, or some other satisfying event, often aroused by posts seen on social media sites.34 FOMO reflects a worry that friends may be having rewarding experiences from which one is absent.

FOMO Facts 

Research psychologist, Andrew Przybylski of the University of Essex, and colleagues3 at University of California-Los Angeles and University of Rochester have recently published the first empirically based investigation of FOMO. Their findings:

•FOMO is a driving force behind social media use.
•FOMO levels are highest in young people and young men in particular.
•Low levels of need satisfaction and life satisfaction are linked to high FOMO.
•FOMO is high in those who engage in distracted driving.
•FOMO is high in students who use social media during classes.

Evidence suggests that a vicious cycle operates in individuals with high levels of FOMO: they end up feeling increasingly lonely because they substitute social media contact for real face time with others, which increases their sense of isolation, which adds to FOMO, and so on. This suggests that “social network” is an oxymoron, because for many it is not social at all. As former FOMO victim, Glennon Melton,5 who blogs for, puts it, “I think too much life spent on social media can make us perpetually somewhere else and alone.” Maureen Dowd, the fiery New York Times columnist, agrees. She believes personal electronic devices sabotage intimacy, saying, “The extension of information obsession to the field of intimacy—which is the slow revelation of one person to another—ruins the mystery, poetry and suspense. Instead of caressing, there’s posting; instead of kissing, there’s forwarding, sharing and sending.”6

Social media expert and MIT professor Sherry Turkle explains in her book Alone Together how the isolation works. “Some who say ‘I live my life on my Blackberry’ are forthright about avoiding the ‘real-time’ commitment of a phone call. The new technologies allow us to ‘dial down’ human contact, to titrate its nature and content… Texting offers just the right amount of access, just the right amount of control.” Speaking of a 13-year-old who “hates the phone and never listens to voice-mail,” Turkle observes, “She is a modern Goldilocks: for her, texting puts people not too close, not too far, but at just the right distance. The world is now full of modern Goldilockses, people who take comfort in being in touch with a lot of people whom they also keep at bay.” Turkle7 sums up the dilemma many face in a wired world: “When is downtime, when is stillness? The text-driven world of rapid response does not make self-reflection impossible, but does little to cultivate it.”

Psychologist John Grohol, an expert in online mental health and founder of Psych Central, further elaborates the FOMO dynamic. “Teens and adults text while driving, because the possibility of a social connection is more important than their own lives (and the lives of others). They interrupt one call to take another, even when they don’t know who’s on the other line… They check their Twitter stream while on a date, because something more interesting or entertaining just might be happening. It’s not ‘interruption,’ it’s connection. But wait a minute… it’s not really ‘connection’ either. It’s the potential for simply a differentconnection. It may be better, it may be worse—we don’t know until we check. We are so connected with one another through our Twitter streams and Foursquare check-ins, through our Facebook and LinkedIn updates, that we can’t just be alone anymore. The fear of missing out (FOMO)—on something more fun, on a social date that might just happen on the spur of the moment—is so intense, even when we’ve decided to disconnect, we still connect just once more, just to make sure.”8

Social media that provide the constant opportunity to be “liked,” to have friends and followers, and which provide the continual possibility for a comparison of one’s status, such as Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter, are especially likely to promote FOMO.91011

Are You Addicted to the Web? 

Here is an exercise in self-diagnosis—the questions used by a Chinese team researching the effect of heavy Internet use on kids’ brains.12

1) Do you feel absorbed in the Internet (you remember previous online activity or long for the next session)?
2) Do you feel satisfied with Internet use if you increase your amount of time online?3) Have you failed to control, reduce or give up Internet use repeatedly?
4) Do you feel nervous, temperamental, depressed or sensitive when trying to reduce or give up Internet use?
5) Do you stay online longer than originally intended?
6) Have you taken the risk of losing a significant relationship, job, educational or career opportunity because of the Internet?
7) Have you lied to your family members, therapist or others to hide the truth of your involvement with the Internet?
8) Do you use the Internet as a way of escaping from problems or relieving an anxious mood, e.g. feelings of helplessness, guilt, anxiety or depression?

The researchers say, “You are an Internet addict if you answered ‘yes’ to questions one to five and to at least one of the remaining questions.”

Fighting FOMO 

I’ve found that remarking on every remarkable thing just makes everything less remarkable… I have “Be Still” tattooed on my wrist because I know that feelings, creativity, inspiration, wisdom, peace and the rest of the good stuff knock during empty moments. —Glennon Melton, blogger at Momastery.com5

Martha Beck, the American sociologist and bestselling author, holds a bachelor’s degree in East Asian Studies and a PhD degree in sociology from Harvard University. One of her concerns is the pernicious influence of social media in kids’ lives. Beck says, “The social media world that named FOMO has also made it an epidemic. It’s hard not to develop this 21st century form of anxiety when one glance at your smartphone reveals a thousand awesome things your friends—and enemies—are doing.” As a former FOMO sufferer and a parent, Beck is concerned with practical methods by which kids can resist the fear of missing out.13 Her starting point is to expose the inherent silliness of the situation:

OMG, do you have any idea what you’re missing right now? Have you checked Facebook in the last two minutes? If so, you know that everyone (and by that I mean everyone but you) is out there totally rocking life. Your BFF (that is, your former BFF) and her new BFF are trekking through Ladakh. Your college roommate has built an Internet empire. Your cousin’s at a wacky costume party, LOL—no, ROFL! Right now, everybody out there (except you) is whirling ravishingly through the good life! Together! In flash mobs! What R U doing?

How to resist? 

Beck’s Strategy 1Realize that FOMO is based on lies. People who post their activities on social media sites skim their life and select the incandescent moments. This is profoundly misleading. As Beck says, “A powerful way to fight FOMO is to recognize that the fabulous life you think you’re missing doesn’t in fact exist. The whole truth is that most of us spend enormous portions of our time looking for our car keys while suspecting there’s something biochemically wrong with us. The whole truth is that today, plenty of us will spend hours trying unsuccessfully to muster the energy to bathe—hours that will be memorialized in neither pictures nor words. The whole truth is that if you could trade places with the people who give you the most raging cases of FOMO, you’d probably find out they’re really, really tired.”

Beck’s Strategy 2Fight FOMO with FOMO. Immunize yourself from FOMO by changing the definition. Let FOMO mean, say, “Feel Okay More Often” or “Find One Magnificent Object” by contemplating something at hand that is wonderful but simple: “the sun, a bowl of soup, your own hand.”

Beck’s Strategy 3Stop. Be present. Be still. Be silent. Acknowledge the wonder that is implicit in this very moment, and that the important thing is what is happening here, now, not in some hyped, imagined, facebooked, tweeted cyber-fantasy.

Death by Internet in South Korea 

For the past five years, Internet addiction has been considered a public health crisis in South Korea, the world’s most wired nation. The problem became a national issue after users started dropping dead from exhaustion after playing online games for days on end.

Almost 100% of South Korean households have access to broadband infrastructure. The government estimates that up to 30% of those under 18 years of age are at risk. To combat the problem, over 200 counseling centers and hospitals now offer treatment by more than 1000 trained Internet addiction counselors, at no cost to the affected individual.14

Severely affected kids can be sent to Internet detox boot camp. An example is the Jump Up Internet Rescue School near Seoul, the first of its kind in Korea and perhaps the world. Part boot camp, part rehab center, the school resembles programs around the world for troubled youth. “Drill instructors drive young men through military-style obstacle courses, counselors lead group sessions, and there are even therapeutic workshops on pottery and drumming,” said The New York Times in an in-depth report.15

Concerns continue to increase in South Korea. Researchers are now concerned with “digital dementia,” a term coined in that country to describe a deterioration in cognitive abilities frequently seen in people who have suffered head trauma or brain diseases. South Korean physicians studying this phenomenon say that heavy Internet use may overdevelop the left side of the brain and leave the right side underdeveloped. Attention and memory span are affected, along with impulse control. Many heavy Internet users, which includes 18% of those between 10 and 19 years of age who use their smartphones for more than seven hours a day, cannot perform simple memory tasks such as recalling their own phone numbers.16

While “digital dementia” may be too strong a term for some forms of cognitive dysfunction associated with heavy Internet use, the aberrations are real nonetheless. Blogger Glennon Melton, mentioned above, spent 40 days without logging on to anything after realizing she had become seriously Internet-addicted. Only then did she recognize how her obsessive Internet habit had changed her over the years. “When I was detoxing from social media,” she wrote, “I realized that I was thinking in status updates. It seemed I had trained my brain to translate everything I experienced throughout the day into 140 characters or less. Everything complex became simple, everything beautiful became ordinary, everything three-dimensional quickly became just two. A week passed before I stopped automatically translating every indescribable moment, sunset or conversation with my kids into two sentences. I had to learn to stop shoving life into tweets and just let things be wild and big again.”5

Brain Damage Documented 

An alarm went off in China in 2008. That year an extensive survey reported in China Daily found that 9.7% of Chinese Internet users between 13 and 30 years of age suffer Internet addiction.17 An Internet addict was defined as someone whose life, career, and interpersonal relations are harmed by Internet use. The Chinese emphasized three criteria: “First, a person feels happier or more self-fulfilled online than in the real world. Second, he feels upset, depressed, or panicked when being cut off from the Internet for any reason. Third, he lies to the family members about how long he spends online.” Among the addicted, 68% were males.18

Especially worrisome is a rigorous, controlled study utilizing state-of-the-art brain scanning technology to study the brains of 18 Internet-addicted university students in China who spent 8–13h a day playing games online. They were compared with 18 Chinese university students who spent less than two hours a day on the Internet.19 Scientists found signs of atrophy of gray matter in the brains of all the heavy Internet users. The longer their Internet addiction continued, the more serious the damage. The researchers also found changes in the white matter lying below the gray-matter cortex.

Western researchers have praised the quality of this study, but are disturbed by its ominous findings. Psychologist Aric Sigman, a fellow of London’s Royal Society of Medicine, called the study a “wake-up call.” He said, “It strikes me as a terrible shame that our society requires photos of brains shrinking in order to take seriously the common-sense assumption that long hours in front of screens is not good for our children’s health.”20

Some laypersons responded to the study by coming to the defense of the Internet. One American teacher said, “It’s not ‘internet’ per se, it’s spending the hours playing ‘games online’ that deadens parts of the brain. Reading interesting/provocative articles or watching a thought-provoking video segment can only stimulate the brain’s faculties… This is just throwing the internet under the bus.”21 The teacher offered no empirical evidence to back up his opinion. Some researchers heartily disagree, saying that its overall screen time and the attendant social isolation, not Internet content, which matter most.22

Awake and Online 

What is the relevance of shrinking brains in China to the situation in the U.S.?

“If your kids are awake, they’re probably online,” said a report on media use by kids in The New York Times in January 2010.23 “The average young American now spends practically every waking minute—except for the time in school—using a smart phone, computer, television or other electronic device.” The basis for these observations is a 2009 national survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation, “Generation M2: Media in the Lives of 8- to 18-Year-Olds.”24 The study found that kids between 8 and 18 years of age spend more than seven-and-a-half hours a day with such devices. And that does not count the hour and a half they spend texting, the surveyors said, or the half-hour they talk on their cell phones. Furthermore, as a result of media multitasking, such as surfing the Internet while listening to music, they cram nearly 11h of media content into those seven-and-half hours.

The authors of the Kaiser study say they were shocked. Following a similar survey in 2005, they concluded that the use of electronic devices could not possibly grow further. Their 2009 study found several worrisome trends, such as the correlation of heavy media use with behavioral problems and lower grades.

What are parents to do? Some experts suggest they simply get over it. Pediatrician Michael Rich,25 director of the Center on Media and Child Health of Children’s Hospital Boston, says that media use among kids is so pervasive that it is time to stop arguing over whether it is good or bad and accept it as part of children’s environment, “like the air they breathe, the water they drink and the food they eat.” This conclusion horrifies experts such as the Royal Society’s Aric Sigman, quoted above. Who can stand idly by when we now know that heavy Internet use in adolescence is correlated with shrinking brains?

Friends Don’t Let Friends Text and Drive 

It is not just brains that are at risk from FOMO. Entire bodies are.

Texting while driving is now the leading cause of death for teen drivers. Dr. Andrew Adesman, associate professor of clinical pediatrics at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, and a team of investigators estimate that, nationwide, more than 3000 teens die annually and 300,000 sustain injuries from texting while driving. This exceeds the estimated 2700 young people who die each year as a result of driving under the influence of alcohol, and the 282,000 who are treated in emergency rooms for injuries suffered in alcohol-related motor-vehicle crashes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In the Adesman study, 49% of teen boys admitted to texting while driving, compared to 45% of girls. “We have very strong taboos against drinking and driving,” Adesman said. “Kids don’t drink and drive every day. But some kids are out there texting and driving seven days a week—and they admit it.”26

Cell phone use while driving is a public menace and is epidemic. According to, 56% of teens talk on the phone while driving. Talking on a cell phone slows young drivers’ reaction time to that of a 70-year old and doubles the likelihood of an accident. Texting while driving is much worse. It makes a crash 23 times more likely and caused 1.3 million crashes in 2011 alone.27

The connection with FOMO is clear. As we have seen, psychologist Andrew Przybylski and his colleagues have demonstrated that “FOMO is high in those who engage in distracted driving.”

What about role models? The problem is that it isn’t just teens who are texting; a large proportion of moms, dads, and grandparents do the same. In a recent California survey of 715 adults between the ages of 30 and 64 years, nearly two-thirds admitted to using a cell phone while driving with children in the car, and one-third acknowledged texting while driving. And in a nationwide survey of 1700 teens conducted by an insurance company, 91% report that their parents talk on cell phones while driving, 88% say mom and dad speed, and 59% of teens have seen their parents text while driving.28

Add it all up and what do you get? According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, at any given daytime moment, more than 100,000 drivers are texting, while more than 600,000 drivers are using handheld phones while operating a car.29

Is “take the train” a good way to escape the plague of auto drivers who are talking or texting? It did not work in Spain on July 24, 2013, when 79 people were killed and scores injured when the driver derailed his train on a tight curve, traveling 119 miles an hour, while talking on his cell phone. Or in 2008, when a Metrolink commuter train ran head-on into a freight train in the Chatsworth district of Los Angeles, killing 25 people, while the engineer was distracted while texting a message to a teenage train buff.

Distracted Walking 

Bonnie Miller, an Indiana mother, nearly drowned in March 2012 when she fell from a pier into Lake Michigan while texting, but was rescued by her husband. In August 2012, a Philadelphia man fell from a pedestrian platform onto train tracks after being distracted by a text, but a Good Samaritan helped him get out of harm’s way. In February 2011, Ryan Robbins, 19, after a night out in Melbourne, Australia, accidentally walked over a short railing in a parking lot while texting a friend and plunged to his death.30

While everyone has heard of distracted driving, the dangers of distracted walking are only now beginning to draw attention. A recent Ohio State University study estimates there were about two million pedestrian injuries related to mobile phone use in 2010, and that this figure is likely to double by 2015 if current trends continue. The researchers found that most pedestrian injuries occurred while talking rather than texting.31 (This gives new meaning to “walkie talkie.”) Individuals most likely to be injured by distracted walking are 21–25 years old, an age group that is also at high risk for FOMO.

It is not just sprained ankles. It is also broken bones, dislocated shoulders, and concussions. It is undoubtedly deaths as well, but because dead people do not report what they were doing at the moment of injury, reliable statistics about pedestrian fatalities due to the use of portable electronic devices are hard to come by.

One wag has suggested that iPhone stands for idiotPhone, since the walkers using them often appear to be in a kind of techno-stupor.

Our Dangerous Experiment 

Back to the brain. What do we know about heavy Internet use that is reasonably certain?

We know that FOMO is a driving force behind high levels of Internet use. We know that eight hours or more of daily Internet involvement with video games is correlated with brain shrinkage and damage in adolescents. We know that American children in general are already at this threshold of use, averaging between seven and eight hours of screen time daily. We donot know all we need to know about the relative impact of different Internet content on the brain. Is heavy exposure to online educational material as damaging to young brains as playing video games? Or does overall screen time trump content, whatever the content may be?

Because we are not certain of the answers, this means that our children are unwitting subjects in a colossal, frightening human experiment whose outcome is potentially disastrous. The possible injury is not limited to a shrinking cerebral cortex. There are cancer concerns as well, in adults as well as children. As Devra Davis, professor of epidemiology and the director of the Centre for Environmental Oncology at the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute, describes the risk of personal electronic devices, “Because the latency between exposure and brain cancer could be 20 or 30 years… we are basically treating ourselves like lab rats in an experiment without any controls.”32

What should parents do? Doing nothing is not a good option. As editor-in-chief, Richard Horton, of The Lancet has said, “We must act on facts and on the most accurate interpretation of them, using the best scientific information. That does not mean that we must sit back until we have 100 percent evidence about everything. When the… health of the individual is at stake… we should be prepared to take action to diminish those risks even when the scientific knowledge is not conclusive…”33

“Parent” comes from Latin words that mean “to bring forth.” The etymology implies a strategy, a plan of action. In order to bring forth children in their fullness, parents need to value the stillness that can come from wisely limiting the use of mind-numbing, attention-stealing, brain-shrinking electronic gadgets. This is Martha Beck’s Strategy 3, Stop. It is cyber-insider, Glennon Melton’s “Be Still” wrist tattoo. It is transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “wise silence.” It was my mother’s “Go outside and play.”

Adolescent brains come one per kid, with no replacement parts. Their brains are malleable, fragile, vulnerable, breathtakingly promising, and indescribably precious, but they are not wise.

That is why parents must be.



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 Image by Lord Jim, courtesy of Creative Commons license.

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