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This happens all the time. There’s a lull in my day and my hand glides toward my phone. I retreat from reality and dive into the digital current of Instagram or Snapchat. But at some point, the sweet joy I get from scrolling through my feed begins to sour. It’s like, Good morning! I’ve compiled everything you’ve missed out on lately.
That sold out concert I wavered on. That restaurant opening downtown. That morning hike with my friends that I passed on because I “wasn’t feelin’ it.” All those moments and more are collected, run through a glitzy filter, captioned with something bittersweet, and tagged with names of all who were there.
My head begins to swirl with indecision, but the opportunities have already passed. I’m sent into a spiral of regret and disappointment, and I know exactly what this means. Hello FOMO, my old friend. You’ve come to haunt me again.
Surely by now, you’ve heard the catchy acronym that represents Millennials’ endless desire to do it all, or else they’re struck with the “fear of missing out.” It’s become so ubiquitous in recent years that you can even find it in the Oxford English Dictionary. The saying has become so popular, it’s left me wondering why my generation was feeling so disconnected when technology was supposed to accomplish the opposite.
To help me better understand FOMO, I spoke to Dr. Jean Twenge, psychologist and author of “Generation Me.” She says studies have shown that FOMO is fueled by social media, which can lead to feelings of worry.
“FOMO occurs due to a collision between wanting to be connected to others and the reality that social life can’t actually go on 24 hours a day,” Twenge says. “That collision leads to anxiety.”
FOMO mostly stems from the inability to focus on the moment. As social media provides a world of infinite possibilities, it’s easy to get swept up in the unfilled ones. And that can trigger anxiety. Twenge says FOMO is particularly common among Millennials due to their high expectations to have it all.
“[Millennials] were told ‘you can be anything you want to be’ and ‘you’re special,’” Twenge says. “So some spend their lives pursuing perfection, [which is] a recipe for anxiety as ‘perfection’ and ‘always being included’ isn’t attainable.”
That’s not to say FOMO is limited to Millennials; anyone can get the fear that they’re missing out. After all, isn’t FOMO just a modern spin on the old proverb, “the grass is always greener on the other side”? Technically yes. But the ability to peer into nearly anyone’s life at any given moment is completely unique to today’s generations.
“People have always feared [they’re missing out],” Twenge says. “The difference is now, with social media, it’s more obvious who got left out.”
After understanding all this, a new question sprung to my mind: Is it possible that FOMO can lead to other forms of harmful thinking? I spoke to psychotherapist Dr. Brooke Donatone, who says that FOMO can lead to drawing comparisons between yourself and those posting their positive experiences on social media. And these comparisons come at a harmful cost.
“People often lose sight that social media only provides a snapshot of what is happening in a person’s life, rarely the entirety of all of their ups and downs,” Donatone says. “Most people are not posting that they didn’t get a job or only got a B+ on a paper. This can erode self-esteem and increase anxiety if a person begins to compare their perceived failures to the success of others.”
Donatone recommends practicing mindfulness as a way to combat FOMO symptoms, whether that’s closing your eyes and taking deep breaths, or keeping healthy boundaries between you and your phone.
In the end, it’s important to remember that social media provides a slightly skewed view of reality that’s only curated to look perfect. If you’re trying to avoid the fear altogether, try practicing mindfulness when peering into others’ lives on social media. I’ve found that as long as I keep focus on my current self, I don’t get lost in the endless stream of concerts I’m not seeing, meals I’m not eating, or life events I’m not having. And just for good measure, I try to use the fear of FOMO itself to nudge myself into experiencing more things that future me might be bummed he missed out on.