Social media: fear of missing out (FOMO) and what to do about it

I recently heard about “Offline October,” an initiative led by four high school students in Denver, Colorado. The teens are encouraging fellow students across America and internationally to disconnect from social media for the month. Their objectives are to shed light on mental health and the impact of device dependency, and also to encourage teens to make more time for meaningful face-to-face conversation and social events.

In light of Offline October, and in an effort to continue the dialogue following World Mental Health Day, this post explores the concept of FOMO, short for “fear of missing out” – a bias belief that can come about because of social media.

What is FOMO?

When was the last time you saw a social media post of a child throwing a tantrum? Or a picture of a house in desperate need of repair? Or a Thanksgiving family dinner gone bad? Or a selfie taken on a bad hair day?

If your social media feed is anything like mine, I’d wager that you don’t often come across many images exposing life in disarray, or even as simply ordinary. Instead, a typical social media feed is often filled with perfect pictures – romantic portraits of couples in love, sweet-as-a-button babies with oversized flowers in their wispy hair, fit and fabulous friends running marathons, fancy dinners out and exotic vacations.

Unfortunately, this steady stream of picture-perfect-posts can sometimes leave people feeling like they just don’t measure up. In addition to feelings of discontent, the often false reality that is portrayed on social media can leave you feeling concerned that you’re missing out on the glories that life has to offer – that is, the fear of missing out, or FOMO. Read our fact sheet to learn more about the relationship between screen time and well-being.

What is the impact of this one-sided (and often unrealistic) portrayal of life?

FOMO can compel people to compete with these feelings of inadequacy by posting content and perfect snapshots of themselves and their lives, with the goal of garnering likes and complimentary comments. This perpetuates the cycle of social media envy, leaving you worrying that your life isn’t comparable to what is portrayed online.

Tweens and teens in particular often fall victim to FOMO. Youth seek validation from their peers and can become consumed by this feeling, falling into the trap of over checking social media (even in the middle of the night) to stay on top of what others are posting and how friends are responding to their posts. Youth may even delete a picture or video if it doesn’t generate sufficient likes or comments.

If you experience FOMO, here are some tips to help:

  1. Recognize that social media content is carefully curated: people tend to use social media as a highlights reel. Just like you can’t judge a book by its cover, you can’t assume that what you see on social media is the full story. Let the passing of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain serve as a reminder that what you see on the outside (success, fame, money) isn’t necessarily the big picture.
  2. Practice gratitude: rather than focusing on what you don’t have, focus on the things in your life that give you reason to be grateful and/or happy. Research has shown that mindful gratitude positively impacts one’s feelings and overall mental well-being.
  3. Use social media to spread positivity and kindness: share inspiring stories, quotes, videos, and follow others who share similar content.  Most importantly, don’t be afraid to unfollow or even unfriend people who share content that makes you feel unworthy.
  4. Seek out authentic, offline connections: rather than using social media to check in on friends and family, pick up the phone and have a live conversation! Even better, make a plan to meet in person. Scrolling through carefully curated social posts simply isn’t as rewarding as an authentic, meaningful conversation.
  5. Manage screen time: a ‘digital detox’ can be a powerful thing, and something that we advocate for in our guide, “Helping our kids navigate our digital world.” If the thought of Offline October and being disconnected for an entire month is too much, consider taking baby steps. Refer to these two resources, developed in partnership with MediaSmarts, for tips: “Managing screen time in your home” (for parents) and “Dealing with digital stress” (for youth).

At the end of the day, social media is a wonderful tool to help document and share milestones, celebrate achievements and even shamelessly boast a new hairstyle or outfit, but don’t forget to step back and appreciate the authentic world around you.