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How Social Media Fuels FOMO

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You notice a tightening knot in your stomach as you browse social media, scrolling through eye-catching photos of breathtaking vacations, romantic dates, career achievements, and milestones. Anxious thoughts swarm through your head like flies, and you wonder, “Why does everyone seem to be living their best life while I’m sitting here watching? What’s wrong with me, and what am I doing wrong with my life? I should be having more moments and memories like theirs!”


What is FOMO? 

The nagging sensation that others are having more fun, living more fulfilling lives, and enjoying better experiences than you is such a common fear that scientists coined the feeling FOMO or fear of missing out. FOMO predates social media, but it has increased dramatically since the rise of platforms like Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter, where users share glamourous life accomplishments in tidy posts. The purpose of such updates is to stay connected, but, ironically enough, it causes more people than ever to feel lonely and isolated. 

Social Media and the Comparison Game

The onslaught of perfectly curated, unachievable lives on social media can lead you to measure your real, nitty-gritty life against others’ highlight reels. It’s a deceptively false comparison that takes a toll on your well-being. Because FOMO isn’t just the thought you could be doing better things when you watch what others are doing on social media; it’s an ever-present fear that you are missing out on something fundamentally important that others are experiencing. This fear of being absent or excluded from the experiences compels you to stay engaged online despite the harm.


FOMO Fuels Addictive Behavior

The more FOMO you experience, the more likely you are to engage in problematic social media use. The behavior resembles addiction as the fear of missing out on seemingly significant affairs compels you to check your phone constantly. FOMO urges you to compulsively respond to notifications even when you risk driving while distracted, sacrificing sleep, neglecting work or school, and forgoing real-world relationships. FOMO drives problematic social media use and causes you to prioritize keeping up on social media over everything else. The ever-present anxious thought that others are living their best lives in your absence nudges you to check in on social media, breeding feelings of FOMO when you continuously see others’ life highlights. This vicious cycle causes you to miss opportunities to live your life and takes a toll on your mental health and well-being.

Scratching the Social Media Itch

Problematic social media use owes its addictive qualities to the nature in which it’s used. Random notifications prompt you to check your feeds, where you receive instant gratification – it’s like scratching the itch. The instant gratification releases dopamine, the pleasure chemical, training your brain to repeat the behavior. Social media platforms are designed to mimic slot machines; you can constantly “pull the lever” or refresh your feeds to see new content and engagement. There’s no reaching the end of social media and no clear stopping point, drawing you into a never-ending cycle of scrolling.


Feeling the Effects of FOMO

Your sense of normal is skewed when you compare your real life to what others post online, leading to anxiety and depression. The comparison game causes a lot of people to assume they have a low social rank when weighed against social media accounts that rack up hundreds and thousands of followers and likes. Many who post content online are searching for external validation, and when you view your life and appearance as objects for public display, you become more anxious about negative reviews. If you fail to receive the feedback you’re seeking, it can cause you to internalize the belief that you are unpopular, unfunny, unworthy, or unlikeable. These mistaken beliefs fuel feelings of low self-esteem and low self-worth. Humans are social creatures desiring interactions and relationships, so perceived exclusion and negative feedback amplify loneliness and anxiety. 

Social Media Sets Unrealistic Expectations 

Social media is also a place you experience evaluation of your appearance. Technology and apps allow users to manipulate photos in seconds before publishing. Then, the algorithm serves you the pictures with the subtle suggestion that you fall short of society’s standards if you don’t look like the altered images on your screen. Social media is not representative of reality, and it isn’t easy to recognize how it distorts your perceptions when technology explicitly targets you with content intended to resonate. The promotion of unrealistic expectations has a devastating effect. In the US, research shows around 25% of young boys are concerned about their muscularity and leanness and express a greater desire for toned and defined muscles. Young girls are vulnerable, too, with 50% of 13-year-old girls reporting unhappiness with their bodies. This number grew to nearly 80% by the time girls reached age 17.


How to Curb the Fear of Missing Out

FOMO is ubiquitous in the generations that grew up with social media, and one survey found about two-thirds of people aged 18-33 admitted to regularly experiencing FOMO. Feeling that you are always missing out on life experiences that others are having in your absence is linked to higher numbers of anxiety and depression. Overall, studies have shown that those who use social media more intensively have lower life satisfaction. 

Before you delete all your accounts, consider that using your social media accounts purposefully as a tool for connection, not comparison, can bring you greater freedom. Here are a few ways you can curb FOMO. 

  • Use social media in moderation. Pay attention to how frequently you’re online by downloading an app that monitors your usage and set realistic goals to reduce your use and replace it with more fulfilling activities. You can even use social media to discover events or activities you can attend!
  • Focus on your friends and family more than acquaintances. You can use social media to keep in touch with long-distance friends and check in on family, but limit your time looking at influencers and celebrity’s content. Seeing your close friends’ posts are less likely to provoke comparison because you know them beyond what you see on your screen. 
  • Share updates from your life mindfully. We know our lives aren’t perfect, but it is tempting to portray them as so on social. It’s natural to want to present yourself positively, and updating your social media with meaningful accomplishments can boost your self-esteem. Occasionally discussing the less-than-perfect aspects of your life can help others feel connected and give them the opportunity to support you.


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