Fear of missing out (FOMO): Definition, causes and ways out

FOMO, or “fear of missing out”, is a social phenomenon that is closely linked to the digitalisation of our day-to-day lives. More and more people are familiar with this feeling, which can develop into a serious psychological strain.

Read on to find out where FOMO comes from, what consequences it can have, and how you can deal with the fear of missing out yourself by taking a few specific steps.

What is FOMO?

The term ‘FOMO’—pronounced foe-moe—stands for “fear of missing out”, and has been in use for a few years now, predominantly in the media. In everyday language, you’re more likely to hear the term in younger age groups.

Definition

Fear of missing out (FOMO) describes the feeling of worry that an exciting, interesting experience is passing you by, and that others are leading better or more fulfilled lives than you. It’s connected to a need to always be digitally connected to others in order to find out what they're doing.

FOMO has many different faces and triggers.

Friends’ activities: FOMO is often related to our friends’ and acquaintances’ activities that we’re not involved in. This can lead to the fear that we’re being excluded and that we’re not liked by the people that are important to us.

Too many options: However, fear of missing out can also be triggered without our friends being involved, for example by the sheer amount of possibilities for our free time. Should I have gone to that other concert? Maybe the other job would have been better?

Staying in the loop: Another cause of FOMO is the endless flow of news that is only a click away at any time thanks to our smartphones. It’s practically impossible to always be up to date with absolutely everything. But people who suffer from fear of missing out feel they need to be, clicking back and forth from newsfeed to online newspaper to messaging app so as not to miss a single trend, development or opportunity.

Fact

In online marketing, FOMO is used in a targeted way to increase product sales, for example by using countdowns on websites to show that a product will only be available for a few more days.

FOMO: The role of social media

FOMO as a concept only emerged in the new millennium in the wake of the spread of social media. The phenomenon is not new, though—it’s as old as humanity itself. The fear of looking back with regret on the road not taken, of having let opportunities slip by, or having made the wrong decisions, has always affected people.

However, social media has made this fear of missing out more intense and more frequent, since Facebook, Instagram and the rest let us continuously investigate other people’s lives. We see our friends in their new domestic bliss, the acquaintance who’s quit their 9 to 5 and is now traveling the world, and the online entrepreneur who already has several million dollars in their bank account by their mid-20s. These digital shop windows tempt us to constantly compare our own lives with those of others.

Because of this, our own lives seem might dull and flavourless, and we see ourselves as not having the brilliant life of others. Jealousy arises and our self-esteem plummets. In these cases, we tend to forget or ignore the fact that both friends and strangers alike on these platforms principally or exclusively present the best side of their everyday lives.

People who feel socially isolated are particularly susceptible to developing FOMO when using social media. It could be argued that social media platforms have a positive effect because they provide opportunities to make new contacts, but studies show that their effect is detrimental rather than positive.

Scrolling through countless photos and videos of people celebrating their apparently exciting lives will make anyone who isn’t satisfied with their own social life feel lonelier and more isolated. This often leads to an urge to spend more time on social media in the hope of finally feeling more connected. Real relationships very rarely develop in this way, though.

Who is susceptible to fear of missing out?

Anyone of any age can suffer from fear of missing out, but the phenomenon is most widespread among young people and young adults. Studies from the US suggest that this comes down to this age group’s especially high social media usage.

Researchers at Carleton University and McGill University in Canada discovered that FOMO can occur regardless of personality type. Neurotic and extroverted people are therefore not more at risk of fear of missing out. However, anyone dissatisfied with their life situation and whose need for love and respect isn’t fulfilled will experience FOMO more often than the average person.

Fact

People who defined their activities (e.g. their profession) as duties rather than as something optional had higher FOMO scores in studies.

How can you recognise FOMO, and what are its effects?

Sooner or later, everyone experiences the fear of missing out when something exciting happens, and feelings of jealousy when looking at others’ social media feeds arises, and the anxiety of no longer being first choice for our friends might occur too. FOMO is not a mental illness in itself that needs to be treated. It can reach a stressful or even pathological level, though, with serious implications for our health.

As fear of missing out and high social media usage are often closely linked, you can easily tell if your fear is taking a worrying course.

  • Do you check your social media feeds daily, even when on vacation?
  • When doing activities with friends, do you think about what, how and on which social media channel you’re going to post afterwards?
  • Do you feel restless or nervous if you don’t know what your friends are currently doing?
  • Do you feel down if you find out via social media that your friends are doing something without you?
  • Do you check your social media feeds while in company or while eating?

If you answered ‘yes’ to one or more of the questions, that is a possible indication of FOMO. The fear can develop into a pathological addiction to social media. If you have the feeling that you are addicted to social media, you should seek professional psychological help.

Alongside the many hours that people with FOMO use social networks, fear of missing out can also entail concrete physical and mental effects:

  • Concentration problems
  • Inner anxiety
  • Depressed mood
  • Stress
  • Sleeping problems
  • Psychosomatic complaints (headaches, intensive sweating, and similar)

5 tips to reduce or completely overcome your fear of missing out

If you notice that you suffer from FOMO, it’s not always necessary to go straight to a therapist. In many cases, the fear can be gotten to grips with using a few simple methods.

1. Offline times: For emergency help, you can download an app, e.g. Space for Android or Space for iOS that will monitor and restrict your social media usage, or even your overall smartphone usage.

2. Acceptance: We can satisfy needs, but our desires have no limits. As soon as we've fulfilled one desire, we already have new ones. Accept that you will never have everything you desire in life. Create clarity about your values: What is important to you in life? Then, set your priorities in accordance with these, and focus on what makes you lastingly satisfied.

3. Gratitude diary: Scientific studies have proven that thankful people are also happier than their contemporaries. Keep a gratitude diary to train your thankfulness.In this way you not only improve your mood and your life satisfaction, but also your sleep, plus you can lower your stress level. It’s enough to write down three things you’re thankful for in a notebook each day. If you use this method regularly, you can fight the root cause of your FOMO.

4. Mindfulness: Anyone who is scared of missing out on something isn’t thinking in the present, but in the past (“I should’ve chosen differently.”) or in the future (“I’ll never achieve this thing that they’ve done in my life.”). Use mindfulness exercises like meditation in order to catch yourself when your thoughts stray away from the here and now and set out on imaginary journeys.

5. Friendships: Consciously take the time to look after relationships in real life. Instead of scrolling through feeds for hours on end in the evening, make plans or call a friend that you haven’t been in touch with recently. Haven’t got many friends, or need a break from people? Take up an old hobby again or learn something new. Go to events where you can meet like-minded people. It’s worth investing time in building up real friendships, as they’re one of the best forms of protection against psychological strain.

Note

By the way, the opposite of FOMO is called JOMO, Joy of missing out. This term has been circulating for a few years now, mostly online, showing that more and more people are consciously standing up to the fear of missing out, concentrating on their own lives rather than comparing themselves with others, and enjoying the moment instead of looking sideways at others’ lives.

Scientific studies on the fear of missing out

The correlation between FOMO and social media has been analysed more intensively by scientists in the past few years. In the USA, researchers are pursuing the causes and consequences of FOMO.

  1. Baker, Zachary & Krieger, Heather & LeRoy, Angie: Fear of missing out. Relationships with depression, mindfulness, and physical symptoms. In: Translational Issues in Psychological Science, 2016/2.
  2. Burnell, Kaitlyn & George, Madeleine & Vollet, Justin & Ehrenreich, Samuel & Underwood, Marion: Passive social networking site use and well-being. The mediating roles of social comparison and the fear of missing out. In: Cyberpsychology. Journal of Psychosocial Research on Cyberspace. 3/2019.
  3. Maeng, Sally & J. Arbeau, Kelly: #TheStruggleIsReal: Fear of missing out (FoMO) and nomophobia can, but do not always, occur together. Trinity Western University. 2018.
  4. Milyavskaya, Marina & Saffran, Mark & Hope, Nora & Koestner, Richard: Fear of missing out: prevalence, dynamics, and consequences of experiencing FOMO. In: Motivation and Emotion, 42/2018.
  5. Przybylski, Andrew K. & Murayama, Kou & DeHaan, Cody R. & Gladwell, Valerie: Motivational, emotional, and behavioral correlates of fear of missing out. In: Computers in Human Behaviour, 4/2013.

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