Do you suffer from FOMO? A new name for an old phenomenon
There’s nothing new about worrying that your friends are out having fun without you. But social media and the smartphone have made fear of missing out, or FOMO, a lot more immediate. In the 1990s, you wouldn’t hear about a colleague’s tropical vacation unless they sent you a postcard. Now you can watch the break unfold in real time, as they tag photos from the beach and check into a luxury hotel on Foursquare.
Background to FOMO
The term FOMO started as an online joke, describing the constant sense of disappointment you feel when you compare your life to the exciting things everyone else seems to be doing. You’re home on Friday night, someone else is at a party. You’re at a party, someone else is at a better party. Like a lot of online neologisms mansplaining, bromance, gaslighting, it’s such a neat description of a common experience that you wonder why the word wasn’t invented sooner. The internet invented the term, and sociologists confirmed its existence with research published in 2013.
Everyone tries to put their best side on the internet: one study found that over two thirds of young adults exaggerate about their experiences in order to look better online. Another study found that information was less likely to be believed if it was displayed to look like a Twitter feed: we all know, logically, that people lie on social media. Read: How to rebuild a damaged online reputation mid-career
But FOMO is a reflexive paranoia, not a rational conclusion. It taps into the caveman part of our brain, which fears being eaten by a sabre-toothed tiger if we’re excluded from our tribe. Even chimpanzees display signs of anxiety when they feel excluded by their peers.
And care has to be taken that the time and energy spent on FOMO can impact the time that should be spent on the things that actually matter.
A side effect of social media
FOMO is thought of as a side-effect of social media, but the compulsion to feel included is found in all areas of life. Economic crashes such as the Iceland banking collapse have been blamed on a kind of FOMO gripping hold of investors. People buy overpriced shares because they are scared of being the only one who isn’t making a profit; then when the price dips, shareholders all sell at once, because nobody wants to be the last sucker still holding a stake in boo.com or Enron.
In theory, you should just switch off your phone and ignore what everyone else is doing. Read: What do you think about people putting their cell phones on the table? But it’s easier said than done. Social media usage is becoming a recognised addiction. Scrolling through Facebook offers what psychologists call a variable reward – usually it’s nothing but cat photos and misattributed inspirational quotes, but sometimes you get a friend request or an interesting message. Animals go absolutely nuts when they are given variable rewards for tasks, and humans aren’t much more sophisticated. It’s almost impossible to resist scrolling through.
When a heavy user puts away their smartphone, they begin to exhibit symptoms of anxiety within ten minutes.
It’s a common complaint that people (especially teenagers) are glued to their phones even when they are together. Read:My smart phone is damaging my relationship What if something comes up which is more important than what they’re doing now? What if someone more interesting than you is trying to talk to them? It’s rude. Of course it’s rude. But humans are not used to plenty. We can’t act rationally when faced with an abundance of food or money, and we can’t handle such a wide assortment of social connections either.
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