Dr. Tracy Bennett
Dr. Tracy Bennett
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Americans LOVE online browsing. YouTube is the second largest search engine, with 1.9 billion registered users watching 5 billion videos daily![1]. As online discovery grows, so does child apathy, anxiety, and obesity. Sometimes, just watching a task get accomplished feels as good, if not better than actually doing the task itself. Numbing out online allows us to escape the hard work of actually trying and failing. It also replaces the opportunity for learning to cope with boredom. Online, one can escape the first twinge of anxiety with a click of the mouse. In real life, you have to endure the moment and work it through. It’s no wonder so many of us choose the less threatening online version of reality to offline experiences.

In Dr. Bennett’s book, Screen Time in the Mean Time, she agrees that discovery online and learning from how-to videos is a great benefit of technology. But she elaborates that kids need “buckets of face-to-face interaction and three-dimensional play experiences to grow the neurological wiring necessary for skill mastery. Too much screen time takes the place of critical learning experiences.” Although watching a how-to video may spark curiosity and experimentation, it can also offer satisfaction without really working for it.[2] Here are some ways people live vicariously through online content consumption and ways you can set your child up for success.

Ways We Live Vicariously Online:

  • Social Media
  • Television
  • Movies
  • Gaming
  • YouTube
  • Celebrities
  • Traveling
  • Learning skills
  • Books
  • Porn[2]

Social Media & JOMO

Social media is one way people live vicariously online.[3] Each post is carefully staged. We pause the live moment until we get just the right shot. No messy reveals of the moment before when you were sweating to climb the cliff overlooking the sunset or annoyed with your companion for talking too much about politics. Only our best accomplishments are highlighted.

Even better, look at Tiffany with her handsome new boyfriend on the sailboat. We no longer have to worry about how she’s handling her brother’s heroin addiction or her eating disorder. She’s happy! End of story. Authenticity is messy…and stressful. Who wants to deal with that?

It turns out that our brains can keep track of, at most, 150 individuals while maintaining a sense of a meaningful connection. This is called Dunbar’s number. A maximum number of meaningful connections is true for our offline as well as our online lives. Yes, we are acquainted with our 1,247 Instagram “friends.” But, are we truly connected?

A recent GKIS article, The FOMO EFFECT: How Fun Friend Posts Can Lead to Clinical Anxiety, described how social media sparks fears of missing out (FOMO). However, Jason Fried, co-founder and president of 37signals, has coined the phrase joy of missing out (JOMO). JOMO is a trend in response to FOMO.[3] Challenging your kids to exercise JOMO may help them avoid the lure of too much vicarious living on social media platforms.

Television & Movies

TV and movies allow us to live vicariously through the characters on screen. Viewers can get so consumed, that they associate the character’s achievements and growth with their own. With on-demand content, we can binge-watcha series, immersing us in ways that can feel profound. It’s as if we are personally experiencing the characters, settings, and plots.

Studies have found that:

  • 79% of viewers reported enjoying television more when they watched multiple episodes at a time.
  • Approximately 61% of Netflix users watch from 2-6 episodes in one sitting.
  • 56% of binge-watchers prefer to binge alone.
  • On average, people watch at least 7 hours of television daily.[4]

Negative Effects of Binge-Watching

  • You are 23% more likely to become obese and 14% more likely to develop diabetes from watching only two hours of TV every day.
  • You may suffer a repetitive use injury like chronic ocular headaches orkyphosis (a spinal deformity that results in a permanently misshaped C-shaped spine).
  • Those who watch more TV are more likely to experience anxiety or depression.[4]
  • A shocking finding from an Australian study indicated that after the age of 25, you lose 22 minutes of life for every hour of television watched.[5]

Like a television-video game hybrid, programmers have picked up on these immersive phenomena, creating tv and movie series where you can actually impact the trajectory of the plot by choosing the decision you want the character to make next. This is called interactive TV. Netflix recently experimented with it by allowing users to vote for one of five pre-recorded endings. Big tech and entertainment are betting that this will be the next mass medium with huge appeal.[6]


Everyone knows someone who stays up all night gaming instead of getting the sleep their body desperately craves. In her book, Dr. Bennett cites peer-reviewed studies that demonstrate how immersive gaming floods dopamine into the pleasure center of the brain.

One doesn’t have to risk peril in real life; just strap on your weapons and save the world with your virtual character. Complete with novel landscapes, skilled partners, and novel rewards, the gaming life provides mastery and socialization that is almost effortless to achieve. Again, real-life struggles are so much more work. Gaming is so compelling, it leads to clinical addiction among some players, requiring professional detox and rehabilitation in inpatient hospitals.


YouTube is the most popular social media platform used today. We have access to experts on everything … and nothing. By watching endless streams of video, we can live vicariously through different genders, ages, and ethnicities.[7] Replacing real-life mastery of tasks, we watch the edited version that leaves out the messy failures endured prior to the perfection captured and downloaded for our consumption.

It has been suggested that many people who view how-to videos gain such satisfaction, they choose not to attempt it in real life after all. That means that watching a how-to video actually squelches real-life practice of the skill. Rather than aiding you to complete the project, it replaces your desire to start.

Celebrity Worship Syndrome

Celebrities have managed to become the idols of many little girls and boys around the world. With society watching and reporting their every move our children come to believe this extravagant behavior is normal. In this way, we are raising a generation of vicarious livers. Children that would prefer to be cast for a reality television show than grow up to be the president.[8] Celebrity Worship Syndrome is when the individual becomes obsessed with the life of a celebrity.[9]


Why spend the money and endure the stress when you can enjoy the experience of traveling all over the world on Snapchat? WeTravel, a company that allows users to travel the world virtually, claims that it will temporarily satisfy your craving to travel by showcasing people’s travels around the world.[10]


Watching online pornography can be a cheap replacement for intimacy acquired through romantic human relations. Too much use can decrease dating confidence.[11] Porn is a source of pleasure that will not turn them down, break their heart, make them feel incompetent or worse, embarrassed.

From Competition to Inspiration

Mastery can only be achieved through anxious anticipation, mustering the courage to try, and multiple failures along the way. Each step in the journey strengthens emotional resilience, character, confidence, and competence. Missing out on real-life learning opportunities can lead to real emotional impairment. None of us want that for ourselves or for those we love.

One technique for altering one’s mindset when viewing photos of others’ accomplishments is replacing the competitive lens with one of inspiration.[12] Teaching your children to be inspired by other’s successes will help them steer clear of vicarious living. Ultimately, engaging and successfully mastering a skill provides you with much more satisfaction and self-efficacy than observing the successes of others.

How to Encourage Real-Life Mastery:

Decide if what you wish you could do, is something you can do.
By encouraging your child to dream with enthusiasm and encouragement, they’ll build the scaffolding of confidence that will lead to real effort.[13]

Commit to a specific end-goal.
Help your kids bridge the gap between dreaming and reality by encouraging them to identify a goal and start to research it!

Tackle it.
By reminding your child that failure and poor results along the way are part of the learning, they can start to chunk the task into several benchmark goals. Remind them that mastery is only meaningful if you overcame the struggle to get there.

Encourage them to recognize their worth and importance.
Ensuring your child that they don’t have to earn their worth is an important part of helping them build a healthy sense of self.[14]
Remind them to celebrate their achievements (and those of others) along the way.
Celebrating benchmark goals will give them the joy of learning that drives follow-thru. Keeping a gratitude journal is a great way to spark celebration.

Demand occasional disconnect.
By following the guidelines and suggestions from Dr. B’s GKIS Connected Family Online Course, you can create a lifestyle that carves creative space and time for real-life experience. Ten easy steps for balanced brain health and the confidence of real-life mastery and quality family relationships.

Most important of all, teach your kids the many joys of missing out! Show them how to break free of the activities that social media says they should do. Instead, spend time doing truly satisfying tasks in real-time, in the real world.

Thank you to Sara Doyle, GKIS intern, for researching and writing this article. In the end, those who never give up on their goals will succeed as much as the talented. To encourage your kids to enjoy real-world creativity that compliments virtual creativity, you won’t want to miss out on the creativity kits and makerspace ideas from our GKIS Connected Family Course. Check it out and start to build your creative, connected home today.

I’m the mom psychologist who will help you GetKidsInternetSafe.

Onward to More Awesome Parenting,

Tracy S. Bennett, Ph.D.
Mom, Clinical Psychologist, CSUCI Adjunct Faculty

Works Cited

[1] http://www.businessofapps.com/data/youtube-statistics/

[2] NPR. “Hidden Brain. Close Enough: The Lure Of Living Through Others.” Shankar Vedantam, Laura Kwerel, Tara Boyle, and Jennifer Schmidt, 2019.

[3] SoundCloud. “Living Vicariously Through Social Media…” Phil Svitek.

[4] CogniFit. “Binge watching: Complete guide to its effects on the brain and body.” Anna Bohren, 2018.

[5] Personal Excellence. “Are You Living Vicariously Through Movie, Drama, or Game Characters?” Celestine Chua.

[6] https://www.latimes.com/business/hollywood/la-fi-ct-netflix-black-mirror-20181228-story.html

[7] “I’m Living Vicariously Through YouTubers” Lily Brundin, 2016.

[8] HuffPost. “Americans Have An Unhealthy Obsession With Celebrities.” Jo Plazza, 2012.

[9] Psychology Today. “Celebrity Worship Syndrome.” Mark D. Griffiths Ph.D., 2013.

[10] “Traveling Vicariously Through Snapchat.” Azzura Ricci.

[11] “Is Living Vicariously Through Others Dangerous?” Nicola Kirkpatrick, 2018.

[12] Riskology. “Are You Living, or Living Vicariously?” Tyler Tervooren, 2019.

[13] Nerd Fitness. “How to Live Vicariously Through Yourself.” n.

[14] Lifehack. “3 Ways to Stop Living Vicariously Through Technology.” Derek Ralsto


Photo Credits

Photo by Diego Gavilanezon Unsplash

Photo by Sergey Zolkinon Unsplash

Photo by freestocks.orgon Unsplash

Photo by Victoria Heathon Unsplash

Photo by Kym Ellison Unsplash

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