Depression, Social Media, and FOMO

December 31, 2019

The holidays are a time of joy, family, and gift-giving, but FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) can cause depression in teens who spend a ton of time on the internet. There is always something going on, somewhere, with someone. Social media is the provider of information overload for teens who are constantly connected. They see the newest hot Christmas gifts in electronics or apparel. They are bombarded by images of social media influencers hawking their latest merchandise.

For teens, peer pressure and the stress created by FOMO can make the holidays a rough time. When asked what they want for Christmas, teens may say they HAVE to have the latest video game, or they HAVE to have the latest kicks. They HAVE to have the newest clothes, or they HAVE to have their social influencer’s newest fragrance. There is a real fear in teens that if they don’t get these things for Christmas, they will be mocked or bullied in school. They won’t live up to the expectations of their peers and will feel left out. Or worse, this pressure and stress could lead to diagnosable depression.

Social Media Marketing

Parents everywhere worry about the amount of time their teens spend on social media. Recent research suggests that American teens spend around nine hours a day with digital technology, watching streaming videos, listening to music, using social media, using tech for school, and playing games. Parents who don’t try to limit their children’s time online may find their kids obsessed with the newest, the latest, the hottest items available this year for Christmas.

With all these hours spent online, teens will be drowned in social media marketing. Businesses know how long teens are online, and they take advantage of that. They target them by which sites they visit, how long they are on the sites, and how often they return to the site. Some businesses engage social media influencers to promote their products – another way to reach the teen market.

Today, the online world surpasses traditional demographics when defining who makes purchases. Businesses no longer define teens by gender or socioeconomic status; they have learned to group teens using their online behavior. For instance, some verifiable truths about the majority of teens include the following:

  • Teens are fanatical about sharing information through social media
  • Teens want to discover information just as much as they share it
  • Teens want real time content
  • Teens want to participate
  • Teens are egocentric
  • Teens care (sometimes too much) about what other people are thinking

Once businesses realize that teens are unique in their needs, they start marketing to that group. They create excitement and desire to purchase through their social media campaigns. The use of social media influencers only increases the odds that teens will purchase their products.

After purchases are made and gifts given, social media is where teens post photos of their newly acquired swag. It’s a competition to see who got the coolest, most hip gifts at Christmas. If your teen starts viewing the social media accounts of friends and peers and doesn’t feel like he or she fits in, it can cause FOMO, which can then lead to depression.

FOMO on Social Media

The now pervasive use of social media has given us a world where we can check in to see what our friends and followers are doing any time of day. Maybe that’s not a good thing.

People will always be worried about their social status, but the prevalence of social media has blown up FOMO into a larger issue, for everyone with a smartphone, tablet, or computer. Those who experience FOMO usually have a perceived low social rank of themselves, which can trigger feelings of anxiety and inadequacy. If a teen misses a social event, he or she may feel disconnected and less cool than those who were there and then posted shots on social media.

This fear of missing out is truly a perception that “others are having more fun, living better lives, or experiencing better things than you are.” It creates jealousy and negatively affects a teen’s self-esteem. Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter are all willing accomplices to FOMO. It always involves feeling powerless and that you are not being included in the big events.

Social media has enhanced the FOMO phenomenon. Teens are constantly comparing their lives to the fun and exciting times of their peers. Their perception of what is normal becomes skewed and teens may start complaining that their lives aren’t as good as the lives of their peers. Photos on social media showing friends enjoying fun times without you is part and parcel to the FOMO phenomenon.

Social media has become the ultimate area for bragging; everyone is trying to one-up each other – especially teens. People compare their picture-perfect experiences, and some teens feel like they aren’t measuring up. There is actually research being conducted on FOMO, which is starting to create a clearer picture of what it involves and how it affects teens. It isn’t pretty, and it is more common than you might expect.

Research has turned up the following negatives related to FOMO:

Social networking sites are both a cause and an effect of FOMO.

Naturally, teens use social networking sites more than most and can experience FOMO as a result. Interestingly, however, “FOMO acts as a mechanism that triggers higher social networking usage. Girls experiencing depression tend to use social networking sites at a greater rate. Boys, on the other hand, found that anxiety was a trigger for greater social media use. This shows that increased use of social media can lead to higher stress rates caused by FOMO.”

FOMO associated with social media usage transcends age and gender.

While FOMO can be experienced by people of all ages, teens are particularly susceptible. One study in the Psychiatry Research Journal found that “the fear of missing out was linked to a greater smartphone and social media usage and that this link was not associated with age or gender.” The researchers also discovered that overuse of social media was linked with a more prevalent experience of FOMO. Social media use can lead teens to experience a fear of judgment from their peers while simultaneously boosting their social status the more they post. However, the negatives seem to outweigh the positives as negative mood shifts were found in FOMO studies.

FOMO is linked to lower life satisfaction.

An article published in Computers and Human Behavior found several developments associated with FOMO. Teens who experience the fear of missing out can have a lower sense of having one’s needs satisfied as well as a more negative feeling of life satisfaction. FOMO has been heavily linked to higher engagement and regular use of social media. It seems that FOMO is linked to feeling a need to participate in social media and to boost that participation. This shows us that FOMO and social media habits contribute to a negative, self-perpetuating cycle for teens who engage heavily in social media.

Fear of missing out can be dangerous.

In addition to increased anxiety and depression, fear of missing out can create an epidemic of unhealthy behaviors. For example, the same study in Computers and Human Behavior found that “FOMO was linked to distracted driving, which in some cases can be deadly.” Teens may also engage in illegal activity, such as theft, if they cannot financially afford to keep up with their peers. Or, they could start hanging with a different crowd to find a way to fit in – and that crowd could engage in risky behaviors like drinking and smoking.

Regardless of the dangers of FOMO, most teens may not be aware that it exists. The nature of most online platforms is one of curation. The content is prepared and targeted to a specific group, like teens. This can lead them to ask themselves, ‘How am I doing in comparison to the cool kids?’ or ‘Is my life better than theirs?’. The more teens use social media, the more they compare themselves to others socially.

These constant “upward social comparisons” happen hundreds of times each day, as teens tend to be on social media anywhere from six to nine hours a day. With that amount of negativity, it’s no wonder that some teens are unhappy. The increased feelings of unhappiness associated with FOMO can grow and morph into a full-blown depression, and that condition may require immediate treatment.

Recognizing FOMO Based Depression

According to the Washington Post, psychologists believe that fears about missing out could be a kind of mental distortion, triggering irrational thoughts — like believing that your friends are out to get you if you were not included in last weekend’s party — linked with depression. For people prone to depression, social media exacerbates their fears about missing out. Some may believe that disconnecting and unplugging will solve the problem, but it won’t. Engaging in talk therapy might help more.

Studies have linked the use of social media to depression, anxiety, and lower self-esteem— often in teens and adolescents. A new study published in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology tells us that there is a causal link between the use of social media and negative effects on mental health, primarily depression and loneliness.

Researchers found that if teens use less social media, they are less lonely and less likely to be depressed. One on one contact is much better for one’s health and well-being than constant use of social media. The researchers say this is the first time a causal link has been established in scientific research. Following are the methods and findings of the study (as reported at the source):

The study included 143 students from the University of Pennsylvania. They were randomly assigned to one of two groups: one that would continue their social media habits as usual or one that would significantly limit access to social media. For three weeks, the experimental group had their social media use reduced to 30 minutes per day — 10 minutes on three different platforms (Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat).

In order to keep these experimental conditions, the researchers looked at phone usage data, which documented how much time was spent using each app per day. All of the study participants had to use iPhones. But why even let the experimental group use social media at all? The researchers felt that completely disconnecting wasn’t realistic or representative of how society operates today.

But, the results were clear: The group that used less social media, even though it wasn’t completely eliminated, had better mental health outcomes.

So, what do you do if you suspect your teen is suffering from depression induced by FOMO?

Diagnosing Depression

It’s not unusual for teens to seem blue or down when their acquisitions don’t meet or match the expectations of their peers. Their self-esteem can take a hit, certainly. But what signs should you look for to determine if your teen needs treatment? If you’re a worried parent, look for the following signs and symptoms:

  • Trouble concentrating, remembering details, and making decisions
  • Fatigue
  • Restlessness
  • Irritability
  • Overeating, or appetite loss
  • Pessimism and hopelessness
  • Insomnia or sleeping too much
  • Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, and helplessness
  • Loss of interest in things once pleasurable
  • Aches, pains, headaches, or cramps that won’t go away
  • Digestive problems that don’t get better, even with treatment
  • Persistent sad, anxious, or “empty” feelings
  • Suicidal thoughts or attempts

These signs of clinical depression suggest that your teen needs to be evaluated by a physician as soon as possible. Depression can lead to risk-taking behaviors, including drug and alcohol abuse, promiscuity, and thrill-seeking. Treatment for your teen may include psychotherapy, drug therapy, or both. The treatment plan should be discussed with your teen’s doctor.

Teen and Therapist | Depression | Hillcrest


FOMO driven by social media can certainly lead to depression in teens. Teens have a deep desire to be accepted and liked by their peer groups and if they don’t meet the expectations of the group in terms of what they own, they can be teased, shunned, or mocked into a state of depression. Be very aware of your teen’s social media activity and watch for signs of depression if they feel their needs haven’t been met.

Here at Hillcrest, we understand how teens dealing with depression can suffer in their day to day lives. Because of our experience working with teenagers that are dealing with mental health issues such as depression, we believe that we are a fantastic place to send your teenager for help with developing coping mechanisms for their depression – or any other form of mental health issue.

Not sure how we can help? Why not contact us to learn how we may support or to set up a tour?