For all his days are full of sorrow, and his work is a vexation. Even in the night his heart does not rest. This also is vanity. Ecclesiastes 2:23
OK, I know this may be a new acronym to you. It was to me. FOMO means Fear Of Missing Out. It turns out that a high number of our next generation are addicted to social media because of FOMO. Recently, a study was done which tracked happiness in the world’s population of 18 year olds and under (basically high school students). One would assume that in the affluent society of America that our kids would be happiest. Well, you’d be wrong. In fact, they weren’t second, third or fourth. Check out the results from this report from the “Global Kids Happiness Index.” The results seemed counter intuitive. In fact, minority kids in Spain, Mexico, Germany and Brazil were all ranked happier.
You might also have assumed that affluence would go hand in hand with happiness. Again, you would be wrong. As Tim Elmore puts it, “Of the four largest ethnic populations in America, the happiest are African-Americans followed by Asians and Hispanics. Coming in fourth are Caucasians. So, while the majority of American wealth is enjoyed by whites, it doesn’t equate to happiness.”
One of the things that didn’t surprise me was that technology and information which is at our kids’ fingertips has had one effect: kids are now more worried about global issues than school. As Elmore notes, “Awareness of global problems results in students feeling more angst about global conflict than their own homework.” Many worry that social media has increased the amount of anxiety of our youth which has exposed them to global issues. Despite random “happy” posts on Instagram or Facebook, these kids have a higher rate of depression and anxiety than prior generations who were not exposed to social media.
And the digital obsession is partly caused by FOMO. Our youth feels a real sense of “fear of missing out.” When they see on the screens of their cellphones about the activities of their friends, they can become unhappy because they are not in the middle of all the apparent fun others are having. That results in more anxiety and depression. Although the passage from Ecclesiastes 2:23 talks about constant work, it really addresses the notion that constant “busyness” of any kind – even that derived from non-stop digital access – causes no rest and ultimately is vanity.
In a provocative essay entitled “I Used to be a Human Being”, Andrew Sullivan writes, as an early web adopter, that the internet, and subsequently the smart phone, became so addictive that it started to ruin his health. Sullivan observes: “Since our earliest evolution, humans have been unusually passionate about gossip, which some attribute to the need to stay abreast of news among friends and family as our social networks expanded. We were hooked on information as eagerly as sugar. And give us access to gossip the way modernity has given us access to sugar and we have an uncontrollable impulse to binge.”
Just this past week brought two illustrations to FOMO in action. One I observed while riding my bike down a country road surrounded by horse farms. I notices a girl riding her horse along a path near the road, but looking down, It wasn’t until I got near her that I saw that she was texting on her smart phone. This past weekend, we hosted three young women from the Liberty University Praise Team who sang in our church. At one of our meals at my house, one of them brought her cellphone to the table and basically was absent-mindedly checking it while the food was passed out. I almost said something, but she finally put it aside and joined our conversation and our meal. As Sullivan notes in his essay, “Just look around you — at the people crouched over their phones as they walk the streets, or drive their cars, or walk their dogs, or play with their children. Observe yourself in line for coffee, or in a quick work break, or driving, or even just going to the bathroom. Visit an airport and see the sea of craned necks and dead eyes. We have gone from looking up and around to constantly looking down.” I have to admit he is right. We don’t just eat; we take pictures of our food to connect on Instagram.
The downside of all of this is that smart phone technology has created an addictive but constant distraction which prevents us from developing real face to face relationships or even appreciating the scenery around us. We have also lost the ability to remain silent – to listen to what God is saying to us. It is often broken up by reaching for our phones to see a text, or answering an email. Sullivan argues that smart phone technology and resulting connectedness has caused a disconnect from our sense of humanity and one another.
Perhaps the most startling thing Sullivan said was the impact of the digital world on the church: “If the churches came to understand that the greatest threat to faith today is not hedonism but distraction, perhaps they might begin to appeal anew to a frazzled digital generation,” Sullivan continues “Christian leaders seem to think that they need more distraction to counter the distraction. Their services have degenerated into emotional spasm, their spaces drowned with light and noise and locked shut throughout the day, when their darkness and silence might actually draw those whose minds and souls have grown web-weary.” That thought needs to bake in today.
The same students who were unhappy in the Global Kids Happiness Study listed several things that made them happy, but at the top of the list were three things starting with “F”: Family, Friends and Free Time. Too often, though, connections with family and friends has become a digital experience instead of a face to face encounter. How sad, because so much is often said in non-verbal communication, and I fear many of the next generation won’t learn that art of communication.
FOMO is not just an American phenomena, by the way. I sent a draft of this post to a young woman in Cameroon, Anita Etanga, who mentors several young women. She said it was “200%” correct for her and that it was an “epidemic both to adults and the younger generation [and] teens.” Her solution? Spending time and being “engaged with the teens, and statistics show that they are the most affected persons.”
The challenge here is to reach a generation that, in a matter of a decade (which is about the time that smartphones have been around), have found the church become less relevant because of all of the distraction. As Russell Moore writes in the Washington Post, “The digital revolution has made visible a spiritual problem that has rocked our churches for a very long time — the idea that identity is found in frenzied activity.” Both Moore and Sullivan advocate a life that is balanced with times of rest – time set apart from distraction or reflection. To that I would add the development of a personal relationship – possibly with a mentor – which is devoid of distraction, and where the sole purpose of the encounter is developing the relationship itself. Most mentors have earned their service stripes in a world without digital distraction (and have done pretty well without it, I might add). We have something to impart, that isn’t found on a smart phone: life experiences. I urge you to consider Investing in another’s life today.
FURTHER STUDY: The article written by Russell Moore in the Washington Post entitled How the Church Can Rescue us from our Smartphones: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2016/09/21/jesus-doesnt-care-how-many-twitter-followers-you-have/?utm_campaign=ee73a87ab3- The article in New York Magazine entitled “I Used to Be a Human Being”: http://nymag.com/selectall/2016/09/andrew-sullivan-technology-almost-killed-me.html
WORSHIP: Join Matt Maher as he sings the Lord, I Need You, declaring that “You’re my one defense, my righteousness, Oh God, how I need You”:
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