"Personal relationships matter,” says Meredith Harrigan, professor of communication at SUNY Geneseo. A new study by Harrigan and five Geneseo undergraduates published in the Journal of Applied Communication Research found that college students are preparing for the future by investing in relationships and leveraging the “fear of missing out,” or FoMO, as a reminder to seize the day.
“Students want to feel connected and that they belong. That was very obvious in our research,” Harrigan says. “What was surprising, however, was learning that students understand that their friendships aren’t just beneficial in-the-moment, but that they’ll have an effect on their emotional well-being long into the future—because of this, they often prioritize friendships during their college years.”
For their article, "The dialectical experience of the fear of missing out for U.S. American iGen emerging adult college students," students in Harrigan's class on theories of interpersonal communication conducted a series of 35 interviews. They found that emerging adults are challenging traditional ideas of where and how they invest their time.
“We didn’t find that students don’t care about academics—they do,” Harrigan says. “It’s just that personal relationships rank a little higher over academics for many in the iGeneration. They may choose the relational piece of college life because they believe that aspect of their well-being is more important in their preparation for the future than, say, learning a particular academic theory.”
Given the importance of personal relationships, it is not surprising that the fear of missing out, colloquially known as FoMO, has become a ubiquitous experience for college-age individuals. Although the feeling of missing out is not new, the use of social media to show in real-time what’s being missed has heightened awareness of it as a social phenomenon. It is not enough to simply turn off phones for this creates another layer of FoMO.
Harrigan points out that scholars have linked FoMO to adverse effects, including stress, anxiety, and sleep issues. Adding the expected stresses of college life—new challenges, personal exploration, and intellectual growth—could theoretically exacerbate FoMO’s negative impact. And yet, the interviews that Harrigan’s class conducted suggest that FoMO isn’t having detrimental effects on students.
“The students we interviewed argued that FoMO was a good thing because it reminded them what matters,” Harrigan says. “When they were experiencing FoMO—checking social media while studying alone in the library and seeing posts of their friends having fun at a party—it makes them think, ‘Huh. Maybe I should go because that might be more important for me.’” FOMO is a prompt to get out and experience life as it’s happening.
Harrigan notes that academics like her might not like to hear that, “but when we frame it as carpe diem—‘I want to be emotionally healthy, and I can do things today to help ensure I have a future that’s regret-free’—that’s logical,” she says. “And it provides an understanding of why they are making the decisions to live in-the-moment, perhaps, more than we did.”
“Students don’t have to choose between personal relationships and academics,” Harrigan says. Learning that students are prioritizing relationships to help them lead happy lives, professors can adjust their courses to meet students’ needs and sustain intellectual and academic goals.
“We tend to frame relational or self-care aspects of college life as co-curricular rather than incorporating them into our coursework,” Harrigan explains. One example of that incorporation would be to “So even though they’re doing technical work, they still have documentation of the people in their group and a visual memory to look back on.”
Harrigan says that if college professors and teachers can find ways to do blend the social aspect of college with the academics—to meet students where they are and help them grow intellectually—it’s an acknowledgment of their students’ prioritizing to focus on emotional preparation. “Students shouldn’t have to choose between going out with friends to create memories or doing their coursework,” she says. “We can find techniques to reposition them in a way that prepares the whole self for a productive future.”
Coauthors on the study are Iris Benz ’19, Christopher Hauck ’19, Rachel Renders ’19, Stephanie Roney ’19, all communication majors, and Emily LaRocca ’19 who double majored in communication and international relations.