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Why is it so hard to keep from comparing our lives to the lives of others?
In the late 1800s, postcards were the preferred way to brag about your summer travel. In the 1960s, these were replaced with slide carousels and projectors. A polite inquiry into a host’s vacation over dinner might have resulted in hastily dimmed lights and an hourlong presentation. In the 1980s and ‘90s, Polaroids gave us instant access to memorable moments.
Today, social media continues to feed our need to live vicariously through others—except now we can tap into the lives of hundreds of other people whenever we want. It is easy for hours to slip by as we scroll through the lives of others. This is when we are most vulnerable to the sticky trap of FOMO: the fear of missing out.
In the beginning, FOMO is subtle. We may see an image of friends enjoying an activity together or of the perfect family taking the vacation we have always wanted. What we start to notice is that we are conspicuously absent from all the fun. Excluded even. Perhaps our posts do not get as many likes. We cannot help but compare and keep score. Before long, we are spending more time on social media with the intention of confirming our deepest insecurities.
As the summer travel season winds down, patients and clinicians alike could use a gentle reminder to question how we use social media and to put boundaries in place to resist the pitfalls of FOMO.
How FOMO Preys on Our Insecurities
According to a 2017 survey, 21% of individuals said they post vacation updates on social media just so they can show off. Another 10% do it to make others feel jealous. Not surprisingly, about 73% of those surveyed also said they find vacation posts annoying.1 Yet, we continue to post and engage.
FOMO is often associated with social media because it is linked to higher levels of engagement and problematic attachment. It can also be applied to other aspects of life outside of social media use. The term was first coined in 2004, when image-based platforms gave us a highly visual peek into people’s lives. In 2013, FOMO was defined as a “pervasive apprehension that others might be having rewarding experiences from which one is absent.”2 It is associated with lack of sleep, reduced life competency, emotional tension, negatively affected physical well-being, anxiety, and a lack of emotional control (Table).
Of course, the feelings associated with FOMO existed long before social media. In fact, studies indicate that the same amount of FOMO occurs whether you hear about a missed event from a friend or from an online post.3 It is natural to compare ourselves to others and even to experience envy. These feelings are deeply rooted in our need to belong and connect with others.
FOMO preys on low self-esteem, loneliness, and fear of social exclusion, and it can lead to feelings of anxiety and depression. It is thought to trigger 2 processes: the feeling or perception that one is missing out and a compulsive desire to continually track what others are doing. A number of other theories are applied to FOMO. These include:
-Self-determination theory: This approach studies human motivation and personality. It suggests that each person is motivated by 3 innate psychological needs: competence, autonomy, and relatedness. When these are met, our self-motivation and mental health thrive. When they are not, our motivation and sense of well-being slack.4
-Too many choices: Having lots of options seems like a good thing—until we start obsessing over whether we made the right decision. Did our choice make us miss out on something else? This theory is explored in psychologist Barry Schwartz’s book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less. “Learning to choose is hard,” he writes. “Learning to choose well is harder. And learning to choose well in a world of unlimited possibilities is harder still—perhaps too hard.”5
-Cybernetic process model: Our brains are constantly sizing up our options and comparing them to our goals or expectations for a situation. When these do not line up, we may feel uncomfortable. FOMO can distort this process and make it harder to accurately evaluate one’s current situation. Rather than priorities important personal goals, we may pursue lesser and unhealthier priorities. In this case, nothing matches up, doubt descends, and you follow everyone else.6
How much FOMO we experience is shaped by our negative life experiences and unmet social needs. We can feel FOMO as a single episode, a long-term disposition, or an overall state of mind. Untethered, it can lead to a deeper sense of social inferiority, loneliness, or rage.2
Because FOMO is so closely tied to self, it touches upon many of our vulnerabilities. In adolescents with social anxiety, for example, platforms like Instagram and Snapchat shore up unmet social needs by allowing them to communicate in a way that avoids awkward face-to-face interaction. The ease of social media shuns the harder work of talking to people in person—unedited and unfiltered. Some may rely heavily on social media when seeking personal validation.2
Upward comparisons are driven by the desire to attract higher likes and engagement. Not achieving this can spark frustration and rage and lead to a distorted sense of self and reward.2 Posts can become highly edited and filtered versions of reality. It is hard to remember that everyone experiences struggles when all you see are images of perfect bliss. Social media influencers set a high bar with stylized content geared to build audiences and sell products.
In fact, FOMO is a big reason people choose to follow influencers: They do not want to miss out.7 Knowing this, social media platforms tailor content to keep you coming back for more. Cross-sectional studies indicate a strong correlation between internet addiction and affective, anxiety, and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorders.8
Instagram has long been accused of knowingly stoking the flames of FOMO. Instagram’s own internal research found that 66% of girls and 40% of boys have been confronted with negative social comparisons on the platform.9
In a 2021 leak, former employee and whistleblower Frances Haugen said company officials knew of the app’s danger to teens but did nothing to address it—even after researchers offered suggestions. Currently under investigation, Instagram’s parent company Meta (formerly Facebook) has temporarily put on hold plans to launch Instagram Kids, an app directed at users aged 13 years and younger.10
As social media grows and shifts in its ability to influence our lives, FOMO is virtually impossible to avoid—but that does not mean it cannot be controlled.
Ways to Reduce FOMO
The simplest solution to controlling FOMO is to limit, even eliminate, the amount of time spent on social media. One study indicated that limiting social media to 30 minutes a day significantly reduced FOMO and anxiety and increased overall well-being.11
Other actions include adopting a JOMO (joy of missing out) approach by focusing on contentment and satisfaction with who you are. Some of the tips include:
-Set a daily limit for your time on social media.
-Hit snooze. If seeing everyone’s vacation photos pushes your buttons, remove or pause social media apps for a period of time.
-Clean your feed by periodically reviewing who and what you follow. Ask yourself how they make you feel. If it is negative, stop following them.
-Engage with friends in person. Social media will never replace the warmth and spontaneity of human contact.
-Explore why you feel FOMO and what triggers it. Confront your insecurities, work to accept shortcomings, and adapt accordingly.
-Establish clear goals for yourself. What is important to you?
-Avoid letting your emotions determine your behavior.
-Keep a journal to identify and examine unhelpful feelings.
-Remind yourself that you never know the challenges people are experiencing—even if they are always smiling.
-Instead of waiting around for an invitation, actively organize activities that make you happy with the people you enjoy.
-Make it a point to recognize and appreciate JOMO. Not hanging out with friends after work means you get more time to spend with your family at home.
-Practice gratitude to shift the focus on what you do have rather than what you do not.
-Practice mindfulness daily through meditation, yoga, or breathing exercises to keep yourself grounded in the present moment.
-Find joy in the simple things in life.
-Adopt a practical and problem-solving approach to FOMO with a list of solutions, should certain scenarios arise. For example, “If I am missing an event that triggers FOMO, I will call a friend and make plans.”
FOMO is inevitable and something everyone will experience in some form at some point in their lives. Whether we let it shadow an occasional moment or let it overpower our lives depends on our resolve to focus on what makes us happy.
Happiness does not come from comparing ourselves, chasing perceived expectations, or even feeling superior to others. It is not the quantity but the quality of experiences that matters. Life’s greatest joys are often found in the simplest of moments shared with people who truly know and love us.
Dr Parmar is a psychiatrist with Mindpath Health.
1. Sun, sea and selfies: has social media killed the holiday postcard? Aviva. June 20, 2017. Accessed Spetember 29, 2022. https://www.aviva.com/newsroom/news-releases/2017/06/uk-sun-sea-and-selfies-has-social-media-killed-the-holiday-postcard-17781/
2. Gupta M, Sharma A. Fear of missing out: a brief overview of origin, theoretical underpinnings and relationship with mental health. World J Clin Cases. 2021;9(19):4881-4889.
3. Hobson N. The science of FOMO and what we’re really missing out on. Psychology Today. April 23, 2018. Accessed September 29, 2022. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/ritual-and-the-brain/201804/the-science-fomo-and-what-we-re-really-missing-out
4. Theory. Center for Self-Determination Theory. Accessed September 29, 2022. https://selfdeterminationtheory.org/theory/
5. Schwartz B. The Paradox of Choice. ECCO Press; 2016.
6. A scientific 3-step solution to overcome the fear of missing out. Psychology Compass. Accessed September 29, 2022. https://psychologycompass.com/blog/fear-of-missing-out/
7. Social media: influencers and FOMO. INM Marketing Group. Accessed September 29, 2022. https://inm-group.com/social-media-influencers-and-fomo
8. Weinstein A, Dorani D, Elhadif R, et al. Internet addiction is associated with social anxiety in young adults. Ann Clin Psychiatry. 2015;27(1):4-9.
9. Wells G, Horwitz J, Seetharaman D. Facebook knows Instagram is toxic for teen girls, company documents show. The Wall Street Journal. September 14, 2021. Accessed September 29, 2022. https://www.wsj.com/articles/facebook-knows-instagram-is-toxic-for-teen-girls-company-documents-show-11631620739
10. Mosseri A. Pausing “Instagram Kids” and building parental supervision tools. September 27, 2021. Accessed September 29, 2022. https://about.instagram.com/blog/announcements/pausing-instagram-kids
11. Hunt MG, Marx R, Lipson C, Young J. No more FOMO: limiting social media decreases loneliness and depression. J Soc Clin Psychol. 2018;37(10):751-768.