FOMO: The dictionary's new word for social media-related anxiety


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While the Internet exploded with outrage today over Oxford Dictionaries Online’s addition of the word “twerk,” you may have missed something (omg!): The dictionary also added the term “FOMO.”

An acronym for “fear of missing out,” the seemingly new term has actually been around since the mid-90s when marketing strategist Dan Herman began conducting studies on it. But today, in a society where people check their smartphones 150 times a day, FOMO has become something Herman couldn’t possibly have foreseen.

JWTIntelligence defined it in its March 2012 report, “Fear of Missing Out (FOMO),” as “constant anxiety over missing out on something important. The patient might not actually know of anything specific he or she is missing but can still possess a fear that others are having a better time.” Symptoms include procrastination, indecision, anxiety, shortness of breath, pacing, racing heart, nail-biting and hair-twisting.


Social media’s contribution to FOMO

FOMO may have existed before smartphones, but now that we have mobile access to social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Foursquare, we’re provided with constant reminders about what we’re not doing — and what we might be missing out on. 

FOMO means different things for different people. For the person who wants to be “in the know” all the time, FOMO might be the fear of not knowing the latest news — and being out of the loop when hanging out with all of his or her in-the-know friends. For the partier, FOMO might be the fear of missing that one night out at the bar when a celebrity makes an appearance. Or it might be one of those nights when you’re stuck at work and can’t help noticing all the check-ins friends are making at restaurants and bars. 

In reality, if you miss that party, outing or show, the odds are that nothing outrageous or completely out of the ordinary will happen — but FOMO makes your brain scream, “BUT WHAT IF IT DOES?!” 


FOMO & relative deprivation

It goes even further than concern over missing an actual event or status update. FOMO is also that feeling we’ve all had when we’ve noticed an old friend on Facebook who has gotten married, had kids, snagged a glamorous job, was interviewed as an expert on TV or [insert accomplishment here]. We’ve all felt that twinge of jealousy that suddenly escalates into a panic of “What am I doing with my life?!” 

Another word for it is “relative deprivation,” which JWTIntelligence’s report defined as “a sociological term that refers to the dissatisfaction people feel when they compare their positions to others and grasp that they have less.”

That uncomfortable feeling often creates an urge for people to update their status and prove that their life is fun or fulfilling too — to develop a certain online image that they can be proud of, and maybe one that others can envy. 

Nearly 6-in-10 of the respondents in JWTIntelligence’s survey reported that they feel it’s important for their Facebook, Twitter or other social media profiles to convey a certain image. The feeling is even stronger for teens and adult millennials (ages 18 to 34), two-thirds of whom felt this way.  

“Younger people are more engaged in identity formation than older people,” said Marc Smith, a sociologist and chief social scientist at the Connected Action Consulting Group. “They may be more open to the experience of FOMO because they are engaged in relative deprivation. Younger people have fewer resources to consume identity-forming products and experiences while simultaneously having the most time and desire for them.” 


Laying the foundation for FOMO

FOMO is more common in American men than American women, and is most prevalent in people ages 18 to 33. This makes sense considering the fact that, as of May 2013, 80% of people ages 18 to 29 owned a smartphone. 

That means the vast majority of adult millennials have the ability to update their statuses across all social networks and check their emails whenever they want, wherever they want — all they have to do is reach into their pocket. And managing the kind of online presence that today’s technology-fueled society demands is a big task that requires that kind of convenience.

According to a July survey conducted by MyLife.com, the average adult manages 3.1 email addresses; 68% manage different sets of friends, family, colleagues and contacts across multiple social networks; and 27% check social networks immediately upon waking in the morning.

More than half of the social networkers surveyed reported experiencing FOMO, and 56% experienced anxiety around missing an important event or status update if they weren’t checking their social networks.


Characteristics of FOMO-affected people

Individuals who feel FOMO the most also feel less competent, less autonomous and less connected with others than people who aren’t concerned with missing out, according to a study published in the July issue of Computers in Human Behavior. Unsurprisingly, they also were more likely to use social media.

Researchers have actually developed a quiz to test people’s level of FOMO. It includes questions like “How often did you use social media when eating breakfast?” and “How often did you use social media in the 15 minutes before you go to sleep?” There’s also a section where quiz-takers must rate how much they relate to statements like “It bothers me when I miss an opportunity to meet up with friends,” and “When I have a good time, it is important for me to share the details online (e.g., updating status).”


Reality check

If you find you’re slipping into FOMO-filled anxiety about whether or not you should say yes when you’d rather not, Psychology Today recommends asking yourself these questions:

  • Is there anything about this event that clearly distinguishes it from a million other events you've attended?

  • Do you know exactly what it is you are afraid of missing out on? Any idea how likely this is to occur?

  • Does the event sound like fun even if nothing splendiferous occurs?

  • Are you inclined to say yes because you want to go, or because other people think you should want to go?

  • Will you wake up the next morning filled with regrets if you don't go?

  • If you say yes, will you be able to leave when you want? (If you say no, will you be able to change your mind?)


Keep things in perspective and remember, sleep is important too — as is time to simply relax and spend some time alone.

As for relative deprivation, don’t spend too much time comparing yourself to everyone else on social media. What you see isn’t always such an accurate profile of reality. A popular quote by Steve Furtick that’s been floating around the Web lately applies beautifully here: “The reason we struggle with insecurity is because we compare our behind-the-scenes with everyone else’s highlight reel.”  Because what is social media, really, besides our own personal highlight reel?