FOMO. Driving Force of Social Media

Millennials, Zillennials, and Gen Z. Three generations that have paid more attention to mental health than anyone before. And generations that have more mental health issues than our parents and grandparents together, at least on paper. Sure, we are more open to talking about such issues and eager to work to normalise asking for help. Yet, from older family members, we can still hear that disorders such as anxiety and ADHD are all just whims and eccentricities because ‘they did not have those labels and turned out just fine.’


‘The Thing that scrolls a lot’

No matter what they argue - times have changed, and so have we. People now aged 15 to 35 were raised in line with the speeding development of new technologies and consumerist society, consequently compromising our health. We were taught to be ambitious, up to date with the world, and self-sufficient, forever learning. It is expected of us to develop those traits.


As a Zillennial, so a person born after 1997 but not feeling like belonging to Gen Z, I still remember the use of brick phones and how internet access was only available through a huge, heavy plug-in stick. I remember waiting for my thirteenth birthday to open a Facebook account. We are digital natives. My generation saw everyone get addicted to social media. What is so great about checking our phones every time we get a notification? Why do we glorify everything for Instagram? And most importantly, why do we support the thing that, although possibly useful in many ways, also makes us miserable?


According to a 2019 study by Roberts and David, heavy social media use increases levels of stress, anxiety, and risk of depression lowers self-esteem and worsens the quality of sleep. Yet, as humans, we are social creatures, and our wellbeing and happiness depend on the feeling of being connected to other people. This exact need was expected to be fulfilled by social media, and on exactly this ground, social media was promoted. However, the irony is that the more Facebook friends or Instagram followers we have, the less connected we feel because the flux relationship we have with them cannot compare to having few friends in real life. Therefore, we enter the vicious circle of pursuing a limitless number of online social connections, of trying to achieve the unachievable goal of being always up to date. This is how we develop FOMO.


OCD and other whims of our generation

Andrew Przybylski defines FOMO (as the fear of missing out) as ‘a pervasive apprehension that others might be having a rewarding experience from which one is absent.’ Reportedly, 75% of young adults self-diagnoses as having experienced FOMO.


As social media gives us a glimpse into the daily life of other people, into any kind of fun our friends are having without us, we feel like we are missing out. Or we hope we were doing something equally entertaining. In consequence, social media unfairly gains symbolic and hedonic value. The preoccupation with lost opportunities becomes a trigger for compulsive behaviours and, subsequently, the excessive use of social media platforms.


It is difficult to break the cycle. We have become pressured from every direction – by our peers, bosses – to stay available, to stay connected. Social media is designed to be addictive. Constant notifications and the algorithm favouring the content make users spend more time on the app. People like Mark Zuckerberg, owner of Facebook (and therefore Snapchat and Instagram), profit off the idea that there is always more to know, more people to talk to, and more posts to like. One can argue that his revenue depends on making us feel anxious because that is how he makes money from advertising.


Tristan Harris, president and co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology, an organisation focused on the ethics of consumer technology, reveals that tech companies have three main goals. Firstly, to drive up the usage, ‘to keep you scrolling.’ Secondly, to make you keep coming back. And finally, to make sure that at the same time, the companies make as much money as possible from advertising that you consume all the time. FOMO is what drives the popularity of social media. That shows how ruthless the consumerist ideology is. For those on the top of the ladder, our health does not matter as long as we buy their product. So how can we not organise our lives around those entities when our lives are expected to happen online?


What doesn’t kill you, gives you anxiety

You might not think about it throughout your day – about scrolling through feed first thing in the morning. Just a habit, right? But FOMO can, in the long term lead to stress and anxiety. As stated by Roberts and David, higher levels of FOMO are also associated with a higher incidence of mood swings, sadness, and apathy. Negative physical symptoms such as headaches, shortness of breath, chest pain, or even sore throats are also experienced.


The good news is that depending on what exactly triggers such a feeling, FOMO can get treated accordingly. The base for fighting this fear is the same approach that is used in dealing with anxiety disorder. FOMO-R is a method theorised and researched by Alataybi et al. in 2020. It involves stages of raising awareness, planning and applying countermeasures – auto-replies, expectations management, screen time limits, and more. Their approach was developed using tools of self-control and cognitive behavioural therapies. That is because if FOMO is a force that dictates our habits, we need help. Habits are the main components of our daily life. Thanks to them, we have the energy to live our lives the way we want as our brains are wired to do certain things automatically. What if our habits are dictated by the fear of not living a ‘good enough’ life? Then the first step is to realise that our reality has been distorted to fit the virtual reality of the glamorised world of expectations.