Have you ever found yourself scrolling through Instagram, watching stories: happy people, fancy dresses, delicious food, a cozy restaurant, mountains in the background, holding a glass of champagne? In the meantime, you are covered in blankets, watching Netflix, with a pack of cookies on your nightstand. You feel miserable: you’re sitting there doing nothing while others out there are having the time of their life. Good news is that this feeling is quite common, it has even a name: FOMO, Fear Of Missing Out. The article explores the meaning and implications of the fear of missing out: it first illustrates how this mechanism occurs, and then, with a more personal approach, it touches upon the additional effects of the use of social media and of the COVID-19 pandemic.
What it is and how it is assessed
Fear of missing out is defined as a pervading state of worry about the fact that others are having valuable experiences which one is not taking part in. As a consequence, a person might feel the urge to stay constantly connected with what others are doing. The former feature is linked to the cognitive aspect of anxiety, while the latter involves a behavioral strategy aimed at providing relief to such anxiety, like checking often Social Media or messaging services.1 According to the Self-Determination Theory developed by Deci and Ryan, human beings’ psychological health relies on three basic needs:
- Competence: the ability to act effectively on the world
- Autonomy: the ability to express self-authorship or personal initiative
- Relatedness: the feeling of closeness or connectedness with others
Based on this theoretical framework, FoMo can be identified as a self-regulatory behavior triggered by a situational or chronic lack of fulfillment of the psychological necessities2 mentioned above.
In scientific literature, Fear of Missing Out is measured through self-report scales, usually ranging from 1 to 10. The most popular scales are said to be “trait-based” and include affirmations like “I fear others have more rewarding experiences than me,” and “When I miss out on a planned get-together it bothers me.” Another type of scale also incorporates “state-based” elements – “I am continuously online in order to not to miss out on anything” and “I fear not to be up-to-date in my social networking sites.” Finally, some researchers assessed FoMO through measures of physiological distress, for example alterations of heart rate and blood pressure, experienced when there is no way to reach social networks3.
How social media play a role
Fear of missing out is not necessarily caused by the use of social media, however, it is undeniable that this technology acts as a catalyst and significantly amplifies the phenomena. The introduction of SNSs (Social Network Sites) has profoundly altered the way people perceive social interactions and above all, it has shrunk the control that individuals have on social communication. In other words, in the past, social interactions were mostly determined by moments in which people were physically together; that in a sense put a “constraint” on a person’s availability, representing a sort of justification – towards others and oneself – to a possible lack of social interaction. On the contrary, with social media and digital communication technologies, you are potentially available all the time. This has marked a shift in the locus of control for social communication from being partly externally determined to largely internally determined.4 While this entails easily reaching out to people at whatever time and place you want, on a negative note you might experience a constant state of alert and a sense of guilt when a text, comment, or notification is not immediately considered.
In addition, SNSs are designed precisely to attract users and continuously stimulate them to interact with their device, ultimately triggering that distress previously explained, which may take the form of Fear of missing out. There are several concrete examples: showing content that is only temporarily available, reporting that the message has been delivered, displaying notifications that show contents only in part, even allowing for likes and other kinds of reactions to posts.5 In order to contrast device-dependency, a few techniques can be applied:
- blocking notifications allows you to check what’s new only when you decide to
- filtering or setting importance levels to contents displayed to you eliminates “noise” from your feed
- setting time limits and intervals of complete disconnection might help value and manage your time more effectively.
This article focuses on FoMO concerning social interactions, experiences, and relationships, however, this phenomenon expands to news and information as well, in particular since the news industry has reached online platforms.
The impact of COVID-19
The COVID-19 pandemic and the consequent measures introduced have relegated everyone at home. Especially during the quarantine period, no one was likely to be out there having fun, so there was no anxiety about missing out on things…Well, that is actually not true. The following paragraphs will analyze how Fear of missing out is still there and is hitting on three different levels.
First, during the pandemic, many activities that were once in-person have been substituted by an online version: the supply for online cooking classes, workouts, conferences, courses, and tutorials of various kinds has skyrocketed; as a result, there might be even more to miss out on. According to Lalin Anik, professor of business administration at the University of Virginia, the current FoMO people are undergoing refers to missing on-line experiences due to a lack of time, energy, or interest.6
Second, restrictive measures have been imposed with significant differences both across and within countries. Seeing a re-opening of a business, a college, or a bar in the city where a friend of yours lives – while you are still stuck at home – might cause you a certain amount of frustration and affliction. Moreover, even keeping imposed restrictions equal, some people still tend to be less engaged in social activities than others, due to different perceptions regarding the safety of socializing and moving around during the pandemic. Such discrepancies may fuel a negative comparison with others and ultimately contribute to FoMO.
Third, fear of missing things that are happening around you has been substituted with fear of missing things that could have been if the pandemic was not there: it transformed from a mere person-to-person comparison to a juxtaposition of the present with the past.
To conclude, fear of missing out is currently affecting many people across all ages and it keeps getting fed both from social media and the pandemic. But careful, the message is not that everyone should delete all social media and throw their phone out of the window, or that it will only get worse. Instead, the suggestion is to shift the focus from what’s missing to what’s present, to take a step back and look at what you have with a different perspective, with gratitude.
- Przybylski AK, Murayama K, DeHaan CR, Gladwell V. (2013)Motivational, emotional, and behavioral correlates of fear of missing out. Comput Human Behav.
- Deci, E. L, & Ryan, R. M. (1985). Intrinsic motivation and self-determination in human behavior. New York: Plenum.
- Elhai, Jon D., Yang, Haibo, & Montag, Christian. (2020). Fear of missing out (FOMO): overview, theoretical underpinnings, and literature review on relations with severity of negative affectivity and problematic technology use. Brazilian Journal of Psychiatry
- Beyens, I., Frison, E. and Eggermont, S., (2016). I don’t want to miss a thing: Adolescents’ fear of missing out and its relationship to adolescents’ social needs, Facebook use, and Facebook related stress. Computers in Human Behavior, 64, pp.1-8.
- Alutaybi, A., McAlaney, J., Stefanidis, A., Phalp, K. T., & Ali, R. (2018). Designing social networks to combat fear of missing out.
- Trepany, C. (2020, September 08). Quarantine FOMO: Why you may still fear missing out, even when everything is canceled. Retrieved from https://eu.usatoday.com/story/life/2020/08/11/covid-19-fomo-fear-missing-out-persists-amid-pandemic/3338062001/