Back to school: FOMO and FOGO

Helen Pike, master of Magdalen College School, shares her insight into teenage brains during lockdown and the return to school

At Magdalen College School (MCS) we have just conducted a pupil survey exploring the triumphs and challenges of lockdown, and what pupils are most looking forward to about the return to school. One phrase kept appearing: seeing friends.

Regardless of where they go to school, there are some needs and priorities which are common to the overwhelming majority of teenagers. Linked to their neural development, these needs include the company and approval of their peers. Parents are right to suspect that teenagers are obsessed with their friends – they most likely are.

Now that some year 10s and 12s in many schools are back, a minority of pupils have the run of their school sites, and daily interactions with teachers and friends, while the rest remain at home. FOMO – fear of missing out – is back in town!

And recently, suddenly, it was announced that pupils from other year groups might come back for ‘meetings’ before the end of the year, though how many and in what form remains unclear. It’s great that schools have flexibility but for pupils that’s not an end to the uncertainty. The two metre social distancing guidance means that every pupil needs 16m2 of classroom space. Schools are many things, but they are not TARDISes.

For many, lockdown was a time to stop being anxious about missing out and embrace missing out as an inevitable positive instead. For some, lockdown was even a reminder to celebrate JOMO – joy of missing out – focusing instead on what we have closer to home and within ourselves.

While not everyone has regular access to a computer or device, we know that nine out of 10 teenagers use social media – with a fifth of those using it for more than four hours a day. While everyone was locked down, this meant that most teens were in a similar social boat: no one was in school, and the majority was online.

Until September at least, school FOMO is a particularly English problem. Last week the Welsh Government announced that from the end of this month, all of its pupils will be able to attend school on a rota. The SAGE advice we saw just before half term suggests that this is the safest model for widening access to school sites – it is certainly the fairest from a pupil perspective.

The difficulty remains accommodating pupils, and managing expectations and emotions while some pupils are in school and some are at home.

In order to make schools as safe as they can be, pupils should as far as possible be in small groups which don’t mix. Organising these so-called ‘bubbles’ in school creates a new landscape of social exclusivity. Similarly, garden gatherings of no more than six mean that nobody is going to be able to see everybody at once, even if they were willing and able to. There will be small online festivals of photoshopped FOMO with its faux pouts and shout-outs.

There is a more mixed picture out there, too. Just as lockdown has affected adults in various ways, so it has our young people. There is the ongoing challenge of the uncertainty of it all; some pupils took the sudden cancellation of exams and the normal rhythm of school life in their stride, some rather enjoyed it, while others were gutted. With the advent of test and trace, pupils could find themselves out of school for a fortnight at short notice, and there will need to be more blended virtual and IRL learning and pastoral care around this. Schools have already responded creatively to this challenge, not least in supporting their students in this new social landscape.

For some, FOMO is the least of their worries, and we are seeing signs that some are in danger of the lesser-known but understandable FOGO – fear of going out. Twelve weeks of being dutiful self-isolators has led some to fear the return to a world of droplets and door handles, and for children in households with shielding or elderly relatives the risks remain real. The risk to primary age children might be less, but who wants to feel that they have endangered their loved ones?

How schools should advise parents

Family health circumstances might mean that visitors and social interactions are difficult or inadvisable. For some, FOMO is the least of their worries, and FOGO is a matter of potential life and death. But if your household is able to see people outside, now is the time to encourage this within the limits of the guidance. Hand washing, facial coverings and maintaining at least a one metre social distance when out in the world with others have a proven impact on infection levels.

At MCS, we have been temperature testing primary pupils on arrival with thermal imaging cameras from the physics department; this is a great time for schools and families to talk to the children about the science of infection and hygiene. Rather than casting ourselves as victims of the invisible, it might be helpful if we reframe the conversation with FOGO children about what they can do to be safer and to accept that life means managed risk. Their education and their taking their place in the world is worth that.

As ever, the key thing is to talk to your children. Keep an eye on their screen time and habits. Help provide structure to the work-from-home day. Go out and go to school if you can – feel the FOGO and do it anyway. Talk through the disappointment (or the relief!) if they can’t go out. Yes, online learning has meant more time in front of screens, but it shouldn’t be sixteen hours a day.

Schools should support parents in encouraging a varied diet of learning. Don’t be too tough – agree with your teen some informal screen time. For many, it is a social lifeline, and FOMO is as real as the virus.


A version of this blog is available in the members zone on the HMC website.

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