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Scared to Stay In: The Psychology of FOMO

September 4, 2019

Illustration of a person laying in bed with their phone shining on their concerned face.

It’s getting later in the evening, but you’re feeling restless. You want to wind down after a long day by casually browsing your Instagram or Facebook feed when you’re overcome by an all-too-familiar sensation. You see a friend has uploaded pictures of an elaborate dinner at a Hibachi grill. Another has recorded a beach sunset saturated with beautiful pastels. As you scroll through countless stories of your friends doing fun and impressive things, your restlessness continues to build and build.

The emotions are hard to describe, but it feels like a weird combination of exclusion, self-loathing, and envy. It’s a strange and utterly empty feeling, and it’s becoming increasingly more common among social media users. The social media phenomenon is known as the fear of missing out, or FOMO. With the rise in social media, the psychology of FOMO is gaining a lot more traction in scholarly conversations because of its power to dominate the mental health of those on the outside looking in.

What’s FOMO?

Social media users have the perfect tools to highlight fabricated, exaggerated, or falsified representations of their lives on their online profiles, which makes it easy for other users to envy them. In short, FOMO is the anxiety or motivation social media users feel when they want to belong to some group, event, or even a moment that others are posting about. It arises from feelings of social exclusion, isolation, or anxiety and can be so intense that people will abandon what they’re doing to join or consume a fleeting moment on social media.

To help define the concept, John M. Grohol of Psych Central captured the urgency of FOMO when he defined the social media and psychological phenomena. He stated that FOMO is “the potential for simply a different connection. It may be better, it may be worse — we just don’t know until we check.”

FOMO affects people of all age groups and across social media platforms. The psychology of FOMO requires attention going forward because it, as Grohol highlighted, “is a very real feeling that’s starting to permeate through our social relationships.”

Why Do We Experience FOMO?

Identifying the nuances of FOMO is tricky because different social media users have different social priorities. One thing is common among users who experience FOMO: the feeling of social exclusion.

Research on this concept has taken off in the last five years. The scholarly article “Fear of missing out: prevalence, dynamics, and consequences of experiencing FOMO” highlighted how, when, and why some university students experience the social media trigger. Researchers tasked volunteer participants to record daily journals to document their social media browsing habits. They then collected individual and group data at the end of the semester. The researchers found that the respondents experienced FOMO while tasked with homework or at work, and it usually came on in the evening and at later parts of the week into the weekend.

The Psychology of Social Media

Because of the trend of extended use, researchers are joining the field to analyze the psychology of social media in our constantly connected culture. Learn more in our latest guide.

Read the Guide

Researcher Volkan Dogan in the Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology explored the ways that self-perception and self-concept affect the onset FOMO. Dogan studied the responses of 566 respondents and found “that FOMO is positively associated with interdependant self-construal.” This finding means the fear of missing out is intimately connected to the ways that individuals understand and experience the world – and what they feel they’re being excluded from. By highlighting the connection between self-perception on social media and FOMO, Dogan illustrated why some experience this unique form of online exclusion.

Some specific emotions have been explicitly linked to FOMO. Gigen Mammoser, a writer for VICE tech news, employed recent psychological breakthroughs to determine that regret is perhaps the most potent trigger for why people experience FOMO. The fear of missing out poses a strange paradox that Mammoser unpacked, stating “that regret can be broadcast into the future, what’s referred to as ‘affective forecasting’ — trying to predict how we might feel based on events that haven’t happened yet.” Confusingly, FOMO causes some users to feel regret before an event or moment on social media has even happened or concluded.

The Psychology of FOMO

Pinpointing the psychology of FOMO is a difficult practice, but it’s becoming increasingly necessary because of its negative effect on social media users’ mental health. Though research is still in its early stages, social psychologists are dedicating more time and energy to the social media concept.

Sometimes FOMO isn’t the only social media contributor to problems with mental health. A report titled “#TheStruggleIsReal: Fear of missing out (FoMO) and nomophobia can, but not always, occur together” explored the dependence to their phones that humans are developing. Nomophobia, as the researchers explore, is the phobia of not having one’s phone. The researchers conducted a survey of university undergraduate students in order to find out how both FOMO and nomophobia overlap in their effect on social media users’ mental health. From a psychological perspective, they found that both FOMO and nomophobia are linked with addictive behaviors, and that extensive smartphone and social media use are directly connected to lower self-esteem and greater emotional instability.

FOMO by itself, though, can take a major toll on the psychology of social media users. According to a
study on social media use by the University of Glasgow in Scotland, the influence of social networks can have devastating effects on the psychological well-being of users. The study examined the mental health consequences of social media use in 467 high-school-aged students. It reports that teenagers significantly feel a societal pressure to constantly be available, and that constant incoming alerts contribute to FOMO. Moreover, the study found that FOMO in the group of teens led to lower self-esteem, trouble with sleep, and anxiety.

At the same time, the study of FOMO experienced by Scottish teens may not line up directly with the social media exclusion that American teens confront. More in-depth scholarly attention across the globe will help generate more serious awareness of the issue and provide credible resolutions to the problem.

How to Overcome FOMO

The study of FOMO is still in its early stages and solutions to it have not yet been explored exhaustively, but there are effective measures to mitigate its effects. Many helpful responses to FOMO relate to cutting back on social media, but some go a step further.

To combat FOMO, sometimes a total change in perspective is necessary. Kristen Fuller, M.D. of Psychology Today suggested social media users embrace JOMO, or the joy of missing out. She found JOMO is “the emotionally intelligent antidote to FOMO and is essentially about being present and being content with where you are at in life.” Fuller explained that JOMO can enable people to:

  • Escape the fast-paced world of social media.
  • Remain more mindful of important human relationships.
  • Reclaim the time otherwise spent on social media.
  • Embrace time away from social media.
  • Find solace in their own lives.

Similarly, Aarti Gupta, a psychologist writing for the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, outlined tips to get over FOMO. The three central practices she recommended are:

  1. Confront the anxiety and insecurity about passing up on social events. She said that “acknowledging the insecurity” will equip the user with the appropriate strategy to accept the problem.
  2. Regiment time spent on social media to specific times of the day. This is a cognitive-behavioral therapy tactic that will help limit social media users’ potential to feel FOMO.
  3. Engage a mentality of be-here-now. When people gain a greater appreciation for their own position in the world, they struggle a lot less with the fear of missing out.

With these direct strategies to confront FOMO, social media users are thought to have an easier time improving their own mental health. It’s important to note these general steps have not been clinically or medically proven to be effective remedies. To grapple with strategies of coping with and treating FOMO and other social media-related issues, it’s best to learn more from trained psychologists.

The first step to navigating FOMO comprehensively is by learning more about the nuances of social media psychology. King University offers a flexible and fully online B.S. in Psychology that will prepare you to navigate the challenges of our technological moment. As a future case manager, career counselor, or rehabilitation specialist, you’ll be expertly equipped to help others deal with their own bouts of FOMO in the real world. Check out our program today and start learning about the ways psychology and technology are changing together.