Life

FOMO: why social media platforms are to blame for your fear of missing out

Posted by
Lauren Geall
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A woman scrolling through social media

We’ve all heard the term FOMO before, but have you ever stopped to wonder why we fear missing out? Here, an expert explains why we get FOMO, and how we can get it under control.

If you don’t know what FOMO stands for, you’re probably experiencing the exact feeling it’s designed to describe: the one-and-only ‘fear of missing out’. It’s basically the 2020 version of the saying “the grass is always greener on the other side”; in the age of instant information, it seems we’re all struggling with the idea that we can’t know everything and be everywhere all at once, making us feel like we need to chase the “optimum” experience – at all costs.

Of course, our smartphones have a role to play in all of this. FOMO existed before social media, that’s for sure – but when we have the opportunity to tune into our friends’ hourly updates on their amazing lives, it’s hard not to feel like something is missing from ours.

But could the design of social media actually be making our FOMO worse? That’s the question posed by a recent study from a team of academics from Bournemouth University and Hamad bin Khalifa University, which investigates whether the way social networks are constructed can actually trigger FOMO – and looks at the different ways FOMO can be caused. 

“Social media platforms are designed to be catchy and immersive… features like notifications, personalised feeds, tempting headlines, reminders and suggestions are all utilised to influence people’s online behaviour,” explains Dr Raian Ali, one of the co-authors of the study. 

“While these techniques are used in other forms in the physical world, in the case of social media, the volume, intelligence and timeliness of these techniques – combined with creative visual elements – can exceed people’s ability to make informed and conscious decisions.”

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In this way, Dr Ali argues, social media platforms trigger feelings of FOMO in a number of different ways – challenging the idea that many of us only fear missing out when it comes to seeing what our friends are up to. 

“FOMO happens not only because we fear that we’re missing the opportunity to know about what other people are doing, but also because we fear that we’ll miss the opportunity to take an active part in that and increase our popularity and belongingness,” explains Dr Ali. “It can also happen because we fear being misunderstood by others and feel the need to be online to clear things up should that happen.”

He continues: “It also includes the fear we have of missing timely stories and events.”

FOMO: the psychology behind our fear of missing out
FOMO: Now, we experience a fear of missing out even when we're online, because we struggle to keep up with all the information.

FOMO is, as Dr Ali’s research shows, a bit of a catch-all kind of beast. Forget the times when FOMO was restricted simply to situations when our phone ran out of battery or we couldn’t get phone signal. Now, we even experience FOMO when we’re online, because we struggle to keep up with all the information, events and happenings that are out there. 

And this desire to know and see everything is taking a massive toll on our mental health. A 2018 study looking at the effects of FOMO on the mental health of young people found that the phenomenon was associated with symptoms such as fatigue, stress, sleep problems and other psychosomatic symptoms.

So, what can we do about it? According to Dr Ali, the answer could lie in our online literacy – specifically our understanding of how we’re influenced online. 

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“Many people who took part in our studies did not know how algorithms work and how they utilise data from browsing history and previous actions to tailor personalised news and recommend actions to them,” he explains. “For example, algorithms will show you the most popular content, and this may help a small percentage of your friends with their successful posts which get more likes and reactions, and ignore the rest.”

It seems, then, that in the fight against FOMO, we need to take everything we see online with a big pinch of salt. FOMO has always existed – after all, being left out will never feel good – but by unplugging ourselves more often and scrutinising our social media feeds with a healthy dose of cynicism, we can start missing out on our fear of missing out. 

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Lauren Geall

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