Is the Fear of Missing Out Ruining Our Lives?
This article was originally produced for a university assignment.
Late on a Sunday evening, you won’t find me burrowing down into my bed for a good night’s sleep ahead of a busy week. Nor will you see me out on the town, squeezing the last drops of fun out of the weekend. I’m not enjoying a good book or browsing through a magazine either. Instead, I’m propped up on a pile of cushions in bed, laptop perched upon my stomach, frantically flicking between my Instagram feed, blog posts and Facebook friends’ profiles, observing the fun of friends and total strangers alike.
Over the weekend, a classmate attended a talk with a famous journalist, one of my favourite fashion bloggers spent two days on an all-expenses-paid trip to Paris, and a secondary school classmate had a wild time on a beach on Thailand. Feelings of jealously and inadequacy slowly creep in, but I can’t stop scrolling. My weekend spent writing essays, going out for pizza with friends and watching Gogglebox with my boyfriend suddenly seems utterly unimpressive compared to the exciting, productive and career-driven lives of my online peers.
I’m suffering from what is commonly know as the Fear of Missing Out, defined by Professor Andrew Przybylski as the idea that others might be having more rewarding experiences when one is absent. “FoMo is characterised by the desire to stay continually connected with what others are doing,” according to Przybylski.
I recently admitted my FoMo problem to a good friend, Kirsty, who suffers from a similar problem. “When I see photos from cool nights out or I find out that friends are going on a trip somewhere, I ask myself why I’m not out there, socialising and enjoying myself,” she says. “I often find myself flicking through Instagram and finding out that people went to a cool party that I didn’t know about, and I’ll feel really bummed out about it.”
Like many of us FoMo sufferers, Kirsty’s problem is at its worse when there’s more than one option at hand. “On New Year’s Eve, my boyfriend and I got in a fight because we couldn’t decide where to go,” she explains. “He was keen on an intimate gathering with his brother and a few friends, while I wanted to go to this big party with loads of cool people from university.”
Even at fun-filled events like music festivals, Kirsty still fears that she’s missing out. “I bought my iPhone with me to Latitude festival last year because I thought it would help keep me in the know – worst decision ever. I was totally FoMo-ing the whole weekend. At festivals, there’s so much going on and if you do one thing, you’re completely missing out on another great thing that’s happening at the same time.”
This anxiety is certainly a modern phenomenon. In an age where most adults own a smartphone or tablet, access to the lives of friends and family around the world is at our fingertips almost 24/7. But our feeds are constantly refreshing, bringing a new stream of updates – the nature of social media is such that we can never see everything there is to see. So it is unsurprising that a survey conducted by MyLife last year found that 56 per cent of social network users are afraid that they might miss an event or important update if they don’t keep an eye on their phones. The survey also showed that 27per cent check their social media updates as soon as they wake up. But the more time spent on social networking sites, the more we scrutinise our own experiences in comparison to others’. A 2012 study published in the journal Cyberpsychology, Behaviour and Social Networking found that the longer people spent on Facebook each week, the more they agreed that everyone else was happier and had better lives.
So, what is causing this this widespread fear that everyone else is having a more fulfilling life? According to leading media theorist and author Douglas Rushkoff, our fear of missing out is a result of “presentism,” the idea that we are more focused on the here and now than the bigger picture. In his most recent book, ‘Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now,’ Rushkoff explains “Our society has reoriented itself to the present moment. Everything is live, real time, and always-on…It’s a diminishment of anything that isn’t happening right now – and the onslaught of everything that supposedly is.”
Rushkoff says “presentism” influences the way we behave on social networks. “When a person sees a picture of someone else at a party or an event they missed, they might feel that they were at the ‘wrong’ thing,” he explains, “Or if they see people Tweeting about something, they might get the sense that they’re not in the location where the ‘action’ is.”
“Of course, the bigger issue here is that they’re compelled to value something other than their own experience of life,” Rushkoff explained, “The moment they are living takes a back seat to the idea of ‘living in the moment’.
Is there anything we can do to stop ourselves from drowning in a sea of self-doubt and social media addiction? Daniel Ariely, a Professor at Duke University gives us an option: to switch off from social media entirely.
“When we experience FoMo, we are evaluating our lives in comparison to
another kind of life we could have. FoMo is realising that something else could be happening – not only that, but something we’ll find out about it. Without social media, there could be a better life out there, but we’ll never find out, so we’ll never regret it.”
In some cases, it appears that this tactic can work. One of my most social media savvy friends Natalie recently lost her beloved iPhone on a night out. After a week of feeling seriously hard done by, she’s starting to see the bright side without social media at her fingertips. “I’m actually finding it quite liberating, living without my phone constantly badgering me with updates and notifications. Before, when I was trying to do work, I’d have to hide my phone from myself under my pillow in my bedroom.”
Natalie still checks her social networks regularly on her laptop, but without her handheld updates, she’s become more productive. Coming from a woman who has amassed 27,000 tweets and nearly 600 Twitter followers, this distance from technology is quite an achievement.
If disconnecting from the net is not an option, consider this; the experiences you’re FoMo-ing over might not be as great at they appear. How do I know? Because I’ve experienced the deception first-hand. Last summer, a group of friends and I made plans to hit up one of London’s most exclusive nightspots. We posed for the standard pre-night out photos, fully made-up with our glad rags on – the best of these were shared on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
While our social media viewers could assume that we’d had a wild night out, in actuality we got turned away from the club, two friends left immediately, another lost her ID. The remaining few managed to get into a club eventually, only to leave very shortly afterwards, as we concluded that the night was already passed saving. But as far as our followers and friends were concerned, everything had gone to plan and we’d spent our Saturday night sipping on complementary drinks and having a fabulous time.
Facebook profiles are full of smiling people with shiny, well-groomed hair, Instagram is home to the filter-heavy selfie, LinkedIn lists our most employer-friendly achievements and Twitter is comprised of well thought out witty comments. We don’t share unflattering photos, advertise negative traits or live-Tweet arguments with our mothers. With many media or PR jobs insisting that their applicants have a “social media presence”, is it any wonder that we feel the need to create alternate virtual versions of ourselves, ones who showcase action-packed lives and interesting experiences? If our future employment depends on our thoughtful Tweets and LinkedIn endorsements, there is an obvious motivation for many of us to create more attractive digital personas.
Personally, I can’t see myself ditching social media any time soon. It provides a fantastic connection to friends and family around the world, access to breaking news and, if nothing else, a tool to find good places to eat. It’s worth taking others’ exciting online lives with a pinch of salt. After all, in the middle of a networking event, wild night out or at a music festival, who look like they’re having more fun: the girl having real-life social interactions, or the one off to the side, hunched over her iphone, trying to get a good shot of her drink?