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The average person spends 147 minutes a day on social media. Because of this, we’re more aware than ever of how others are spending their time. Every party, vacation and even meal out seems to be documented for the world to see.
For some, this constant stream of documentation can lead to experiencing FOMO, or fear of missing out. Though FOMO isn’t a diagnosable psychological condition—at least not yet—this phenomenon can directly impact both mental and physical health. While social media can be a big cause of FOMO, it certainly isn’t the only culprit. The feeling of wanting to fit in and belong far outdates the Internet. If you are experiencing FOMO regularly, there are ways to overcome it.
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According to the World Journal of Clinical Cases, the term “fear of missing out” gained traction in 2004. This was the year Facebook launched, one of the first large online spaces (except for perhaps MySpace) where people were able to publicly display their friendships and what they were doing through status updates and photos.
“Psychologists began using the term FOMO in the early 2000s to describe a phenomenon associated with the use of social networking sites. It has gained greater attention over the years as our social media presence has increased,” says Natalie Christine Dattilo, Ph.D, the founder of Priority Wellness Group and an instructor of psychology at Harvard. “FOMO includes both the perception of missing out, which triggers anxiety, and compulsive behaviors, like checking and refreshing sites, to maintain social connections,” she says. “It is closely related to the fear of social exclusion or ostracism, which existed long before social media.”
FOMO may have entered our lexicon during the advent of social media, but Erin Vogel, Ph.D., a social psychologist and an associate professor at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, emphasizes that the feeling of missing out has existed much longer. “Humans want to feel like we’re included like we belong to a group,” she says.
Another way that psychologists have studied FOMO is by focusing on how a feeling of “belonging” can influence our self-esteem, continues Dr. Vogel. “When we feel as if we’re part of a community and others approve of us, we feel better about ourselves. When we don’t get that sense of community approval, we feel worse about ourselves,” she says.
When it comes to the first use of the acronym FOMO, the credit is often given to Patrick McGinnis, a writer who used it in an article he wrote for the Harvard Business School magazine, The Harbus, in 2004 (McGinnis is now a venture capitalist, best-selling author and has a podcast called FOMO Sapiens.) In his article, McGinnis used “fear of missing out” to describe why people often overschedule themselves.
Even though FOMO is not currently a diagnosable condition, it can have specific symptoms, according to a 2021 report in Technological Forecasting and Social Change. Some of these symptoms include:
Other symptoms of FOMO, according to Erin Vogel, Ph.D, a social psychologist and an associate professor at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, can include:
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“Social media is not the only thing that causes FOMO. For example, you might get an invitation to a weekend party that you don’t necessarily want to attend, but go anyway because you don’t want to feel left out when your friends talk about it on Monday. Social media facilitates FOMO, but people have always experienced it,” explains Dr. Vogel. While anything that makes someone feel left out can be a cause of FOMO, agrees Dr. Dattilo, a few of the more common causes include:
A sense of belonging is a fundamental human need. One study focusing on adolescent girls referred to this need as “social hunger.” This language underscores how important the need of belonging can be for some and why experiencing FOMO can affect certain people so negatively. Feeling socially connected (the opposite of FOMO) has even been linked to living a longer, healthier life.
How can feeling connected impact our health in such an important way? Researchers say that it’s because feeling bonded with others leads to feeling less stressed, which supports both the nervous system and the immune system. Conversely, the feeling of FOMO affects the brain similar to other anxiety conditions by activating a “fight or flight” response, says Dr. Dattilo. “The brain perceives a threat, a social threat in this case, and puts us on high alert. Our nervous system gets agitated and then we become uncomfortable and motivated to find relief,” she continues.
This need for relief often leads people straight to their favorite social media apps. “Unfortunately, by seeking relief in this way, we only maintain or even strengthen the anxiety that triggered it in the first place,” says Dr. Dattilo.
FOMO has also been linked to mental health issues. Experiencing FOMO can be associated with depression, feeling more stressed out and decreased life satisfaction.
When it comes to an actual age range, teens and youth are more at risk for experiencing FOMO. “Younger people are considerably more at risk due to the increased amount of time spent online coupled with a heightened sensitivity to and need for social approval and belongingness,” says Dr. Dattilo
However, young people aren’t the only ones who may experience FOMO. Since the fear of missing out is often connected to social media, Dr. Vogel explains that any avid social media user is more at risk of experiencing FOMO than individuals who do not use social media very much. “It’s likely that social media use can cause us to experience FOMO because we’re seeing the ‘highlight reels’ of other people’s lives,” she says. “It’s also likely that people who are very invested in their social relationships are more drawn to social media and more prone to experiencing FOMO.” To this point, a smaller study from 2017 found that extroverts may be more likely to use social media excessively than introverts
Individuals living with social anxiety are also at risk, notes Dr. Dattilo. This is because, she explains, they are more likely to avoid social situations and rely more heavily on social media for connection and to decrease feelings of loneliness.
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It’s clear that feeling a sense of belonging is important for both physical and mental health. It’s also likely that FOMO negatively impacts health. But why is social media such a powerful driver of FOMO? To understand this, it’s important to know just how powerful apps like Instagram, Facebook and TikTok can be. When we see posts that make us happy on social media (or when someone “likes” our posts), it increases the hormone dopamine in the brain, lighting up the brain’s reward system, explains Dr. Dattilo.
“Posting on social media and receiving positive feedback through comments, likes and follows is highly rewarding to the brain so we seek that again and again,” says Dr. Dattilo. In this way, using social media can quite literally be addictive.
If you find yourself experiencing FOMO, both Dr. Vogel and Dr. Dattilo have some advice on how to deal with it:
Constantly experiencing FOMO may negatively impact mental and physical health—but it’s also very possible to enjoy social media without letting FOMO overtake you. Remembering that social media is only half of the story, as well as enlisting some coping mechanisms, can help you push back against FOMO. Cultivating a personal sense of belonging may also help you feel more in control and secure.
“When it comes to treating FOMO, the main goal should be control rather than abstinence,” Dr. Dattilo says. “Be intentional and mindful about your social media usage. Notice which accounts or apps tend to make you feel worse and unfollow or delete.”
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Emily Laurence is a journalist, freelance writer and certified health coach living in Raleigh, North Carolina. She specializes in writing about mental health, healthy aging and overall wellness. For six years, she was an editor and senior writer at Well+Good, covering everything from food trends to public health issues like the opioid epidemic. She graduated from the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University with a bachelor’s degree in magazine journalism. Find her on Instagram at @EmLaurence.
Dr. Temple is a professor, licensed psychologist and the vice dean for research for the School of Nursing at the University of Texas Medical Branch, where he also holds the John Sealy Distinguished Chair in Community Health. As the founding director of the Center for Violence Prevention, his research focuses on the prevention of interpersonal, community and structural violence. Dr. Temple has been funded through the National Institute of Justice, National Institutes of Health and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He has over 230 scholarly publications in a variety of high-impact journals including JAMA, JAMA Pediatrics, The Lancet Child and Adolescent Health, Pediatrics and the Journal of Adolescent Health. He recently co-edited a book on adolescent dating violence, is an associate editor for the Journal of Prevention and is on the editorial boards of four other scientific journals. Dr. Temple co-chaired the Texas Task Force on Domestic Violence and served on the Board of Directors of the Texas Psychological Association. Locally, he served for seven years as the vice president of the Galveston Independent School District Board of Trustees. His work has been featured on Forbes, CNN, New York Times, TIME Magazine, Washington Post and even the satirical website, The Onion.