The Social Virus

With more than 70% of young adults affected by FOMO, or the fear of missing out, chances are you’re a victim, too.

After a long day of classes, I wanted nothing more than to curl up in bed with some popcorn and the third season of 30 Rock. I declined an invite to my friend’s party in favor of some much-­‐‑needed stress relief. Just as I was getting cozy in my bed, I made a mistake that ruined what was meant to be my night of relaxation. I checked my Facebook page.

Photos and status updates from the party flooded into my news feed, glaring right at me. Everyone was partying, laughing, and eating pizza. Instant feelings of anxiety washed over me as a million questions sprang to mind: Was I missing out on a fun time? What if my friends made plans without me? Does everyone think I’m lame? I didn’t want to go out that night, but suddenly, looking at the pictures on Facebook, I couldn’t help but feel like I’d made a mistake.

Like most college students, I suffer from an increasingly common phenomenon dubbed FOMO, or “fear of missing out.” FOMO refers to the jealousy and loneliness that occur when someone sees the seemingly glamorous events documented in the social media posts of their peers. Social media users tend to only post about exciting activities, like jamming out at a 90’s-­‐‑themed party or sipping on a cocktail at Lucy’s. Saturday nights spent watching Netflix usually don’t show up on Instagram and Facebook.

Reading about one or two of your social media friends’ exciting lives is harmless, but the problem occurs when you log onto social media and see hundreds of pictures and status updates. “Everything is exaggerated [on social media] to be ten times better than it really is,” says Cady Welker, a junior studying public health and child and family studies at Syracuse University. Comparing your life to your friends’ based on their pictures and statuses can cause you to think that you’re “missing out,” which makes life feel like one big popularity contest.

“People need to get a certain amount of ‘likes’ on pictures to feel gratified and feel good about themselves,” says Welker. She brings up her younger sister, who she says knows exactly when to post a picture on Instagram in order to get the most buzz. “She will ask people to like her photos so she can get a certain amount of likes. It’s instant gratification.”

According to a 2013 study by JWT Intelligence, a marketing communications company, two-­‐‑thirds of people ages 18 to 33 experience FOMO. All humans naturally feel a tendency to belong, so a desire to be liked is wired in our brains. But social media creates an exaggerated need for popularity. Leonard Newman, associate professor of psychology at Syracuse University, says, “People are inherently social creatures. We have what psychologists call a basic ‘need to belong,’ and an aversion to feeling ostracized and excluded. It’s about as important to people as avoiding hunger or thirst. The problem is that today we can go online and be inundated with clues about our social status, and it can be overwhelming.”

Modern society’s emphasis on popularity can lead to depression, social anxiety, and other mental health problems. Karen Schwarz, a licensed mental health counselor at the Wellness Therapy Center in Syracuse, New York, says that FOMO stems from social media addiction. Just as those addicted to drugs and alcohol rely on substances, those addicted to social media rely on ‘likes,’ ‘comments,’ and other online popularity boosts. When you see pictures or status updates about perceived missed opportunities, whether it’s friends hanging out without you or a coworker’s vacation, the anxiety starts to set in. Schwarz says the thought of being left out can lead to feeling socially inadequate.

“In young adulthood, people compare themselves with the extroverts. The people who are out there partying, having fun, and doing stuff,” she says. “At some point when it becomes problematic, you start freaking out about it and become anxious when you don’t have an extroverted lifestyle.” She adds that FOMO-­‐‑induced social anxiety is exaggerated in those with a predisposition to anxiety. This predisposition can stem from a genetic trend of anxiety or pressure from family or friends to have a large social group. Having social anxiety without a predisposition is possible, but a predisposition can be traced in most cases.

Although the “fear of missing out” can be devastating, you can get over FOMO without ditching your social media accounts. The first step is learning not to take posts and status updates as straight truth. “The idea on social media is that everyone else has this glorious, socially fulfilling life. The reality is that a very tiny minority of people have it,” says Schwarz. As another solution, Schwarz recommends limiting your time online so you are exposed to less harmful material without feeling a complete sense of social disconnect. Try cutting the time you spend online in half, and then keep decreasing the time further. If you find FOMO still controls your life, the best method might be to ignore your accounts. Newman says, “Once you start worrying about how many ‘likes’ your last comment received, and how many ‘friends’ you have compared with everyone else, there’s no end to the ways in which you can feel like you’re being slighted.”

Next time, embrace your decision to stay in and watch Netflix. Don’t let social media and your fear of missing out dictate your life.

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