YOLO, FOMO, and the Behavioral Consequences of Teen Slang

Words have power. Teen slang phrases and acronyms, such as YOLO (You Only Live Once) and FOMO (Fear of Missing Out), can significantly influence the behavior of teenagers and adolescents.

Although the behavioral consequences of teen slang are not always negative, the attitude expressed by these phrases can lead to risky choices, such as trying illegal drugs. When parents understand what these acronyms mean and what they represent for teens, they can help kids avoid dangerous behavior.

The Evolution and Purpose of Teen Slang 

Each generation of teenagers comes up with its own internal language and adaptive communication, otherwise known as teen slang. Such teen slang reflects the trends and popular culture of the time. For millennials (born between 1981 and 1996), Generation Z (born between 1997 and 2009), and eventually Generation Alpha (born between 2010 and 2025), technology has an enormous influence on the development of teen slang. From tweets to texting, the speed and savvy of today’s digital communication clearly impacts the evolution of this lexicon.

For teens, having a common language creates a sense of solidarity, independent of parents and other adults. As recent research explains, “The study of the paradigmatic traits of teenage slang has shown that a sense of togetherness is predominant. This cohesive linguistic device is not consciously intended to exclude unwished members from conversations or common understanding, but the idea of relying on a preserved sense of solidarity and acceptance is a human urge, especially among teenagers or young adults.”

However, while exclusion may not be the goal of teen slang, it can leave parents in the dark.

Newport Academy Mental Health Resources: yolo

The Origin of YOLO 

Before we look at how YOLO and FOMO ignite teen desires and insecurities, let’s delve into the origin stories of these two legendary examples of 21st-century teen slang. In a sense, YOLO and FOMO are flip sides of the same coin. YOLO is an adventurous, positive affirmation about “going for it,” while FOMO is a fear of missing out on the adventure.

“You only live once” (YOLO) is a modern version of the Latin phrase Carpe diem, meaning “Seize the day.” Since you only live once, you need to live life to the fullest, even when that means embracing adverse behavioral choices that carry an inherent risk.

Although the originator of the phrase “You only live once” is unknown, it’s easier to pinpoint the public figures who popularized the acronym. According to Forbes magazine, the Canadian rapper Drake used the term in “The Motto,” a bonus track from his 2011 album Take Care. However, the Forbes article points out that Adam Mesh, who appeared on the NBC reality series The Average Joe, was the first to utter “YOLO” on the public record when he was a contestant on the show in 2004.

Also, the celebrated indie group the Strokes had a 2006 single called “You Only Live Once.” To promote the song, the band started a promo blitz called “Operation YOLO” that has more than 16 million YouTube views.

Who Coined FOMO?

The origin of FOMO is even harder to determine. Credit for the popular usage of the acronym is often attributed to venture capitalist and author Patrick J. McGinnis. In 2004, he used the phrase in an op-ed for Harvard Business School’s magazine The Harbus, to describe the social lives of his grad school students. According to McGinnis, their lives were frenetic because they all feared missing out on anything that their fellow students were experiencing.

Regardless of the origins and later popularizations of these teen slang acronyms, YOLO and FOMO have entered the common lexicon. And a number of recent studies point to the connection between these phrases and certain teen behaviors.

YOLO and the Behavioral Influences of Teen Slang 

Many studies find a direct link between music lyrics and teen risky behavior. For example, a study in the Journal of Health Communication in 2016, titled “Drunk in Love: The Portrayal of Risk Behavior in Music Lyrics,” analyzed the top 20 Billboard songs from 2009 to 2013.

Researchers cataloged references to casual sex, drug use, and disregard for the consequences of dangerous behaviors. And they found that “alcohol and sex were associated with disregard for consequences most often in 2011, when the ‘you only live once’ motto was most popular.” Moreover, they concluded that “these findings are concerning because exposure to popular music is associated with increased risk behaviors for adolescents and young adults, who are the greatest consumers of music.”

Another recent study shows how the YOLO mindset promotes extreme drug use among young people in England. Published in the academic journal Frontiers of Psychology, the 2015 study looked at young people’s consumption and perceptions of nitrous oxide. Researchers found that many adolescents had a “relaxed attitude toward the drug (‘yolo, you only live once so why not’).” Therefore, they concluded, this lack of awareness of risk could increase consumption patterns, leaving youth more susceptible to side effects and risks.

Newport Academy Mental Health Resources: yolo

FOMO and the Behavioral Influences of Teen Slang

2013 review study on FOMO defined it as “the uneasy and sometimes all-consuming feeling that you’re missing out—that your peers are doing, in the know about, or in possession of more or something better than you.” And three-quarters of young adults reported experiencing this uneasy feeling.

Moreover, a study published in the Journal of Psychiatry and Brain Functions in 2018 tracked the relationship between alcohol-related consequences and the FOMO mindset in college students. Students who were more likely to “fear missing out” reported twice as many instances of alcohol-related harm over the three months preceding the study, compared to those who reported less FOMO.

After analyzing the results, the researchers concluded, “FOMO is a risk factor for experiencing alcohol-related harm in college students. Our study showed that those who fear missing out were more likely to exhibit risky behavior when they drank alcohol. Therefore, it may be important to address factors like FOMO in order to reduce alcohol-related harm.”

Red Flags and the Behavioral Influences of Teen Slang

In the majority of cases, YOLO and FOMO are harmless expressions that teens use because their friends do. However, in certain cases and contexts, the use of teen slang can be a red flag indicating a higher risk for dangerous behavior. To determine which is which, parents need to observe their teen’s overall behavior, attitude, relationships, and other indicators of mental health.

Sources:

English Today, 1–6. 

Front Psychiatry. 2017; 8:312.

Annals Neurosci Psych. 2015; 2:7.

J Health Commun. 2016 Oct;21(10):1098–106. 

Computers Human Behavior. 29(4):1841–1848.