After coming home from a fun Saturday night out, you head off to bed. Except you make the dreadful mistake of checking your phone. As you scroll through the endless stories on your Snapchat, or the latest Instagram posts on your feed (some more interesting than others), you can’t help but feel a particular sense of loneliness and regret. You may think to yourself, Why wasn’t I at that hockey game? Or, I should have gone to that party. Despite whatever else you may have done that night, you always think, I wish I were there.
Such feelings have become so prevalent in our daily lives that they have morphed into a cultural problem. Especially among teens, this phenomenon is deemed so enormous that the Internet has actually created its own acronym for it: FOMO. FOMO, or the fear of missing out, occurs when a person constantly worries about their social life in comparison to those of other people, and all the social events that they have missed out on. As such, FOMO in its most current and popular usage has come to be characterized by a sense of self-insecurity regarding one’s self-worth and social life.
As the era of cell phones progresses, the advent of social media applications that pervade everyday culture has only exacerbated the feelings of those affected by FOMO. By making it easier and easier to keep up with other people’s lives, social media applications like Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, and Facebook allow users to see the multitude of events they may have missed out in greater depth and detail.
First, Facebook enabled people to post and share entire photo albums of events in their lives to their entire “Friends” list. These photos depict users at events that range from the ordinary to the not-so-ordinary. Depending on how many “Friends” someone has, and how often someone posts, the happenings of his or her daily life can be accessed by anywhere from ten to thousands of people within seconds. Then came Instagram, a photo-sharing platform solely designed to share notable events happening in people’s lives. What distinguishes Instagram from other social media platforms is its emphasis on creating a collection of incredible moments in users’ lives. Celebrities as well as ordinary users most often post photos of themselves at exclusive events or when they look their best, thereby projecting altered versions of themselves to the world. Finally, social media evolved until it created Snapchat, an app in which users can send ten-second photos of themselves to other users. Snapchat’s “My Story” feature also allows users to post photos and videos of themselves to their storyline, which their entire friends list can view for up to 24 hours. This feature in particular has led to an endless barrage of streaming from other Snapchatters 24/7. At any given moment, it is extremely easy to view what another user is doing in their life by viewing their Story or receiving a one-on-one Snap, especially if a user is very active. When combined, these social media apps provide users with a closer look into other people’s worlds than may not be healthy.
Viewing such posts can evoke feelings of regret as to how people have spent their time. According to Dan Ariely, professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University, “Streaming social media have an immediacy that is very different from, say, a conversation over lunch recounting the events of the previous weekend. When you see that your friends are sharing a bottle of wine, without you—and at that very moment– ‘you can imagine how things could be different…’” (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/10/business/10ping.html?_r=1). Seeing posts about events as they occur often results in greater regret about one’s social life than learning about events after the fact.
Initial symptoms of FOMO as affected by social media may begin with an increased checking of one’s phone, perhaps characterized by an absent-minded interest in learning what other people are up to at random instances. However, over time, this might gradually devolve into an obsessive compulsion to constantly check social media applications. An online quiz developed by researchers called “Rate My FOMO” asks responders to reflect on how often they use social media at various points throughout the day, such as during breakfast, lunch, or in the fifteen minutes before falling asleep. Other questions ask responders to rate their fears and anxieties regarding their friends’ lives, such as whether they “continue to keep tabs on what my friends are doing” while on vacation, or whether they are bothered when they “miss out on a planned get-together.” Such factors are good indicators of how high one’s level of FOMO is. (http://www.ratemyfomo.com/).
For some, FOMO has reached such a heightened level that they remain on their phone checking social media applications even after they have visited all their sites and know nothing new has been, or will be, posted. In other cases, when conversations only center upon social media, people may even develop a fear of missing out on social media posts. Maybe obsessive checking of one’s phone occurs partly because of boredom. But ultimately the real culprit for such an irrational necessity is FOMO.
FOMO is most problematic because it creates detrimental psychological and physiological effects upon a person’s health. Among the largest concerns surrounding the phenomenon is its ability to lead to anxiety and depression. In 2013, The University of Michigan conducted a study on the effects of depression within a group of eighty-two Facebook users. Results found a direct correlation between how much time a user spent on Facebook and their corresponding level of depression. Ethan Kross, the lead researcher on the project, explained:
We were able to show on a moment-to-moment basis throughout the day how people’s mood fluctuated depending on their Facebook usage. We measured lots and lots of other personality and behavior dimensions, like, for example, the greater frequency of Facebook use, the more your mood dropped…The negative effect of Facebook use on happiness became more pronounced the more you interacted with other people within that time frame.(http://guardianlv.com/2013/08/facebook-causes-depression-new-study-says/).
Since then, other researchers have conducted studies that demonstrate how the use of social media correlates to one’s overall level of happiness.
Psychologists have also explored how the fear of missing out exaggerates depression caused by social media:
Fears about missing out may be a type of cognitive distortion, causing irrational thoughts — such as believing that friends hate you if you didn’t get an invite to last week’s party — associated with depression. For people prone to such thoughts, modern technology may just exacerbate their fears about missing out. (Washington Post).
Researchers have also found that teens and adults between the ages of eighteen and thirty-three are most susceptible to the deleterious effects of FOMO. Thus far, they believe that this occurs because this age group is most concerned with social standing and is most active on social media. However, more research is necessary on the topic. (https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/research-finds-link-between-social-media-and-the-fear-of-missing-out/2013/07/08/b2cc7ddc-e287-11e2-a11e-c2ea876a8f30_story.html).
Perhaps FOMO as exaggerated by the effects of social media occurs because our online presence has come to be as important to us as our real-life presence. A report published by the American Academy of Pediatrics found that:
A large part of this generation's social and emotional development is occurring while on the Internet and on cell phones… Kids' online lives are an extension of their offline lives… Acceptance by and contact with peers is an important element of adolescent life. The intensity of the online world is thought to be a factor that may trigger depression in some adolescents.(http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/127/4/800).
The presence of social media has become so ingrained within our culture that our generation has come to define important aspects of ourselves by it. Dissatisfaction with their online selves may cause students to perceive inadequacies with their real-life selves — another one of the ways that FOMO and concerns about one’s social life can lead to depression.
At Friends, it is evident that social media exercises a tremendous influence upon students’ social lives. Common conversations within the social edifices of Friends Academy include remarks like, “Did you see his latest Snapchat story? It’s so cool” or “Her new Instagram photo is sick!” Such conversations often revolve around the extraordinary aspect of such posts. On the surface, they appear to be mere compliments to the poster, acknowledging that he or she engaged in some sort of note-worthy activity. However, when such conversations and posts begin to reach an unremitting level of occurrence throughout Friends Academy culture, they present the problem of exaggerating the FOMO that students might feel. By implying that most people engage in noteworthy activities on a routine basis, they may make students more concerned about how their social lives compare to others’.
Ultimately, a heightened sense of FOMO and concerns about one’s social life in comparison to those of others can transform into a desire to post more often online, in order to indicate to others that one’s social life is interesting and adequate. But as students post more about their own social lives, they may produce more FOMO in other students; subsequently, these students feel an increased pressure to post more and spread the affliction on to others. Perhaps it is this contagious aspect of FOMO that is the most problematic. In any case, the next time you post about the latest events happening in your life, consider what prompts you to do so.