Fear of Missing Out (FOMO): Social Media's Contribution to Anxiety Disorders

October 22, 2023   •  Posted in: 

The fear of missing out, or “FOMO,” is a phenomenon first identified nearly 30 years ago, but one that has taken on a new meaning in recent years with the rise in social media.

This article describes what FOMO is, its relationship with social media, and how social media contributes to anxiety. Included in this article is advice for anyone suffering with anxiety who believes it is being made worse by internet or social media use, as well as guides to helpful resources.

 

What is FOMO?

The concept of FOMO was initially identified in 1996 by marketing strategist Dr. Dan Herman, although not published by that name. His research, conducted for Adam Bellouch, led to the publication of the first academic paper on the topic back in 2000 in The Journal of Brand Management. In the days before the internet, a similar phenomenon to FOMO, known as “Keeping up with the Joneses,” was commonly experienced.

The actual term FOMO was coined by author Patrick J. McGinnis, who popularized it in a 2004 article published in The Harbus, the magazine of Harvard Business School. Another academic, Joseph Reagle, also discussed the concept in the same 2004 The Harbus article. Since then, FOMO has become a widely used hashtag on social media and has been featured in numerous news articles, ranging from online sources, like Salon, to print publications, such as The New York Times.

Research has shown that FOMO is associated with anxiety and depression, which is the focus of this article.[1]

 

Who is at risk of experiencing FOMO?

Four out of ten young people reported experiencing FOMO sometimes or often.[2] FOMO was found to have a negative correlation with age, with men more likely than women to report experiencing it.[3] Individuals who experience higher levels of FOMO tend to have a stronger desire for high social status, exhibit more competitiveness with others of the same gender, and demonstrate greater interest in short-term relationships.[4]

 

Why has FOMO become more of an issue recently?

In the digital era, as more aspects of people’s lives have become publicly documented and easily accessible, FOMO has intensified the feelings of being left out or left behind. What makes it even more powerful is that people tend to share positive experiences rather than negative ones online, which further contributes to FOMO.

 

What are the symptoms of FOMO?

The symptoms of FOMO are split across two categories: behavioral and psychological.

FOMO arises from a sense of being disconnected or uninformed about social experiences and information. This feeling affects behavior as it is accompanied by a strong desire to engage socially in order to experience connections with others.

A study conducted in 2019 by the University of Glasgow surveyed 467 adolescents and revealed that respondents felt pressured by society to always be available.[5] FOMO can drive individuals to constantly seek new connections, sometimes at the expense of neglecting existing ones.

Numerous studies have also established a negative association between the amount of sleep individuals get and the intensity of their fear of missing out. In college students experiencing FOMO, sleep deprivation can be attributed to late-night social interactions that frequently occur on campuses.[6] Additionally, FOMO has been found to influence poor decision-making related to alcohol, such as underage drinking and binge-drinking, among college students.[7]

FOMO has been associated with detrimental psychological effects, including overall mood and general life satisfaction. Continuous experience of FOMO throughout a semester can also contribute to elevated stress levels among students, while individuals who anticipate the fear of missing out may develop lower levels of self-esteem.[8][9]

 

FOMO and social media

The fear of missing out, particularly in the context of digital connectivity, has shown a positive correlation with unhealthy technology habits, particularly among young people.[10] These habits include increased screen time, checking social media during school, and texting while driving.

Other ways FOMO can psychologically impact social media users include:

  • Formation of long-term goals and self-perception
  • Feeling overwhelmed by the amount of information required to stay updated
  • Believing it is impossible to not miss out on something
  • Diminishing psychological well-being
  • Negative social and emotional experiences, such as boredom and loneliness
  • Negative effect on mood and life satisfaction, reduced self-esteem, and impacted mindfulness

Social media and anxiety

In recent years, researchers have begun examining the prevalence of anxiety among individuals who use social media.

However, it’s not always straightforward to assume cause and effect as individuals with anxiety often report experiencing some relief from their anxiety via social media. Excessive use of social media has been associated with both distraction and the temporary relief of psychological distress, as well as mental exhaustion and attention deficits.

For example, a 2013 study discovered that individuals who exhibit compulsive mobile device use are more likely to experience feelings of anxiety compared to non-compulsive users, while a 2017 study observed that individuals with anxiety are more inclined to utilize various social media platforms as a means to alleviate their negative emotions.[11][12] In other words, anxious users tend to employ different coping strategies, such as increased engagement with social media.

Further adding to the complex nature of the discussion, a 2017 study also indicated that social media provides respite from mental health issues, with individuals with anxiety reporting they are more likely to seek solace in social media, searching for attention, support, or a sense of belonging.[13]

 

What is anxiety?

Anxiety is recognized as a significant psychiatric disorder, but its true prevalence remains unknown due to individuals not seeking proper treatment or assistance, and professionals sometimes missing the diagnosis. It is an emotion characterized by apprehension and somatic symptoms of tension in which an individual anticipates impending danger, catastrophe, or misfortune.

Anxiety is often confused with fear, the two terms often used interchangeably by some. However they can be distinguished both conceptually and physiologically. For clarity’s sake, anxiety is considered a future-oriented, long-acting response broadly focused on a diffuse threat, whereas fear is an appropriate, present-oriented, and short-lived response to a clearly identifiable and specific threat.

Read more about what anxiety feels like?, the physical symptoms of anxiety, the long and short term effects of anxiety, and 10 ways to help someone with anxiety.

 

Different degrees of anxiety

Individuals with anxiety are prone to various cognitive and evaluative disturbances, such as distorted perception of dangers and threats, experiencing false alarms, engaging in irrational decision-making, and unsystematic information processing. Scholars argue that anxious individuals tend to perceive their anxious state as problematic, chronic, and inescapable, often believing their ability to engage in tasks and concentrate is impaired.

According to the American Psychiatric Association, individuals experiencing anxiety may also complain of fatigue, exhaustion, and physical discomfort.[14] Recent studies have identified various antecedents and consequences of anxiety, including psychiatric and physiological disorders, substance abuse, emotional disturbances, fatigue, distress, and even suicidal tendencies.

Anxiety disorder is defined as:

any of a group of disorders that have as their central organizing theme the emotional state of fear, worry, or excessive apprehension. This category includes, for example, panic disorder, various phobias (e.g., specific phobia, social phobia), and generalized anxiety disorder. Anxiety disorders have a chronic course, albeit waxing and waning in intensity, and are among the most common mental health problems in the United States.

[Anxiety disorders] may also occur as a result of the physiological effects of a medical condition, such as endocrine disorders (e.g., hyperthyroidism), respiratory disorders (e.g., chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), cardiovascular disorders (e.g., arrhythmia), metabolic disorders (e.g., vitamin B12 deficiency), and neurological disorders (e.g., Parkinson’s disease). Obsessive-compulsive disorder and posttraumatic stress disorder were traditionally considered anxiety disorders; however, they are increasingly considered, as in DSM–5, to be separate, if still related, entities.

American Psychological Association Dictionary of Psychology

 

What is the best treatment for anxiety?

The initial step in managing individuals with anxiety symptoms is to evaluate the potential presence of an underlying medical cause. Identifying any underlying medical conditions is crucial for determining the appropriate treatment. Anxiety symptoms can sometimes mask or be associated with medical disorders.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is an effective and commonly recommended treatment for anxiety disorders, often considered as the first-line approach. CBT operates on the premise that our thoughts, emotions, and actions are interconnected. It emphasizes our interpretations or thoughts about a situation often contribute to feelings of anxiety, rather than the situation itself.

CBT has also shown comparable effectiveness when delivered through internet-based platforms. While there is promising evidence for the effectiveness of mental health apps, further research is needed to establish their efficacy.

Psychopharmacological treatment (prescription medication) can be used alongside CBT or as a standalone option. In general, most anxiety disorders respond well to first-line medications.

Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs), which are also used as antidepressants, are commonly prescribed as they increase the availability of certain neurotransmitters by blocking their reuptake.

Benzodiazepines are also frequently prescribed for anxiety disorders, as they have an anxiolytic effect by modulating the GABA neurotransmitter and enhancing its receptor binding.

Another treatment option involves serotonin agonists, which initiate a physiological response by enhancing serotonin action at the 5-HT1A receptor. Other treatment alternatives may include pregabalin, tricyclic antidepressants, moclobemide, and others.

However, when considering how to tackle FOMO and anxiety linked to social media use, the evidence suggests reducing time spent on social media is key.

Findings from a 2018 study strongly suggest that limiting social media use to approximately 30 minutes per day may lead to significant improvement in wellbeing.[15] Over the course of three weeks, undergraduate students were asked to limit their social media use, resulting in significant reductions in loneliness, depression, anxiety, and FOMO.

 

Find relief from anxiety at The Center • A Place of HOPE

Living with anxiety can be a daunting, draining, and distressing experience.

However, there is hope. At The Center • A Place of HOPE, we provide award-winning treatment for various anxiety disorders. Our dedicated team is committed to assisting you in making progress towards recovery, offering reassurance that you are not alone on this journey.

Our distinctive approach to anxiety treatment, known as Whole Person Care, tackles the physical, emotional, intellectual, relational, and spiritual aspects of your life. By addressing every facet of your being, rather than solely focusing on the anxiety, we can guide you towards holistic healing.

If you are ready to learn how to manage your anxiety symptoms and flourish in your life, reach out to us today for more information on how we can support you.


[1] Marina Milyavskaya et al., (2018-10-01). “Fear of missing out: prevalence, dynamics, and consequences of experiencing FOMO,” Motivation and Emotion, 42 (5), (2018): pp. 725-737. doi:10.1007/s11031-018-9683-5.
[2] Walter J. Thompson, “Fear of Missing Out (FOMO),” (2012).
[3] Andre Przybylski et al., (July 2013). “Motivational, emotional, and behavioral correlates of fear of missing out,” Computers in Human Behavior, 29 (4), (2013): pp. 1841-1848. doi:10.1016/j.chb.2013.02.014.
[4] Eric W. Dolan, “Study links the fear of missing out to striving for status, intrasexual competitiveness, and a short-term mating orientation,” PsyPost, (2023).[
[5] Heather C. Woods, Holly Scott, PhD, “#Sleepyteens: social media use in adolescence is associated with poor sleep quality, anxiety, depression and low self-esteem,” Journal of Adolescence, 51, (2016): pp. 41-49. doi: 10.1016/j.adolescence.2016.05.008.
[6] Marina Milyavskaya et al., (2018-10-01). “Fear of missing out: prevalence, dynamics, and consequences of experiencing FOMO,” Motivation and Emotion, 42 (5), (2018): pp. 725-737. doi:10.1007/s11031-018-9683-5.
[7] Ayoko Djisseglo, “FOMO: An Instagram Anxiety,” (2019).
[8] Marina Milyavskaya et al., (2018-10-01). “Fear of missing out: prevalence, dynamics, and consequences of experiencing FOMO,” Motivation and Emotion, 42 (5), (2018): pp. 725-737. doi:10.1007/s11031-018-9683-5.
[9] Mayank Gupta, Aditya Sharma, “Fear of missing out: A brief overview of origin, theoretical underpinnings and relationship with mental health,” World Journal of Clinical Cases, 9 (19), (2021): pp. 4881-4889. doi:10.12998/wjcc.v9.i19.4881.
[10] Vittoria Franchina et al., October 2018). “Fear of Missing Out as a Predictor of Problematic Social Media Use and Phubbing Behavior among Flemish Adolescents,” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 15 (10):2319, (2018). doi:10.3390/ijerph15102319.
[11] Andrew Lepp, Jacob E. Barkley, Aryn C. Karpinski, “The relationship between cell phone use, academic performance: Anxiety and satisfaction with life in college students,” Computers in Human Behavior, 31 (2013), pp. 343-350. doi.org/10.1016/j.chb.2013.10.049.
[12] Brian Primack et al., (2017). “Use of multiple social media platforms and symptoms of depression and anxiety: A nationally-representative study among U.S. young adults,” Computers in Human Behavior, 69 (2017), pp. 1-9. 10.1016/j.chb.2016.11.013.
[13] Anna Vannucci, Kaitlin M. Flannery, Christine M. Ohannessian, “Social media use and anxiety in emerging adults,” Journal of Affective Disorders, 207 (2017), pp. 163-166, 10.1016/j.jad.2016.08.040.
[14] American Psychiatric Association
[15] Melissa G. Hunt, Rachel Marx, Courtney Lipson, Jordyn Young, “No more Fomo: Limiting social media decreases loneliness and depression,” Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 37(10), pp. 751-768. doi:10.1521/jscp.2018.37.10.751.

Dr. Gregory Jantz

Pioneering Whole Person Care over thirty years ago, Dr. Gregory Jantz is an innovator in the treatment of mental health. He is a best-selling author of over 45 books, and a go-to media authority on behavioral health afflictions, appearing on CBS, ABC, NBC, Fox, and CNN. Dr. Jantz leads a team of world-class, licensed, and...

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