It’s a Friday night.

You lay on your bed quietly browsing Facebook. Your aunt has recently discovered reactions and is now reacting to all your pictures from 2010.

A buzz.

You quickly check your phone only to find that it is an email. Since your phone is already in your hand, you check Snapchat.

Your friends went out to eat. How thoughtful of them to have invited you.

From your window you hear the sound of friends walking down the street, most likely having a fun night out.

Infamously known as FOMO, Fear of Missing Out is the feeling of being left out, the feeling of exclusion, the feeling of rejection. It is those late-night thoughts of being at home and wondering what your friends are doing. It is the sudden hypersensitivity around your phone. It is the subconscious longing to have plans and to be out. It is the quiet assurance that everyone you know is out having the time of their lives. And you. You are left at home doing nothing.

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Studies indicate that increased involvement in social media might contribute to feelings of FOMO.

Photo by: Jurgen Appelo

What Exactly is FOMO?

One can view FOMO as a more developed form of social conformity. Conformity is defined as a type of social influence involving a change in belief or behavior in order to fit in with a group. In the context of a Friday night, this means that a comfortable night inside can quickly turn into anxiousness at the slightest realization that others are out enjoying themselves.

These feelings are also ones that come from loss aversion. Loss aversion is the tendency for people to prefer avoiding losses to acquiring gains. In other words, people may be incentivized to go out for the sake of not missing out and avoiding the regret, rather than for the act of going out in and of itself.

That is why there is such a strong urge to go out and do something when we go on social media. The automatic assumption is that everyone else is out having a good time and we are not. Conformity, along with loss aversion, induces negative feelings.

The Influence of Social Networks

A recent study at the University of Glasgow in the UK found that FOMO might in fact be a scientific mental condition. Researchers found that teenagers significantly felt a societal pressure to constantly be available. This was linked to feelings of depression and a dependence on social media for fear of missing out on events, parties, plans, etc.

467 students between 11 and 17 years of age were chosen for the study. They were given a questionnaire, asking them about their emotional and psychological well-being (covering self-esteem, anxiety, depression and sleep quality) and their social media use. The researchers found that teens who were most active on social media reported higher feelings of anxiety, worsened sleep quality, and lower self-esteem. Additionally, the study found that these effects were heightened in the evening, when teens use social media more often and are more susceptible to feelings of exclusion.

Head researcher Dr. Heather Cleland Woods commented on this discovery, noting that teens feel “pressure to be available 24/7, and not responding to posts or texts immediately can increase anxiety. Also, [there is] anxiety around ‘missing out.’”

This suggests a strong correlation between an invested role in social media and FOMO itself. Social media induces strong emotional investment and, as a result, affects our perception of the situation.

If there is a silver lining to this matter it is this: FOMO helps to show the great connectivity we as humans have with one another.

Why FOMO Takes a Toll

FOMO is closely linked with and analogous to social exclusion. When individuals experience FOMO, it registers a stress signal in the brain similar to that of being excluded from activities. A study published in 2003 by the American Association for the Advancement of Science found that individuals experienced increased activity in the brain regions associated with pain when experiencing social exclusion.

Participants were made to play a virtual ball-tossing game while inside of an fMRI machine. The game was designed to exclude the participant throughout the game, so as they played, researchers monitored their brain activity. During times of exclusion, the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and the right ventral prefrontal cortex (RVPFC) regions of the brain were found to be more active. The ACC is known as a neural “alarm system” that alerts the brain during times of distress. The RVPFC is a regulatory region that mediates negative feelings and is turned on during times of distress.

This suggests that during times of exclusion, our body reacts in the same way as if we were in pain – social exclusion alerts the brain that something is wrong. In the case of FOMO, individuals feel that they are excluded from a group of others. This induces anxiety and distress at knowing that others are out while we are not.

Solutions to FOMO

At the moment, there is no clear-cut solution to FOMO, nor to feelings of social exclusion. FOMO serves as a part of social psychology and an insight into social interaction as a whole. If there is a silver lining to this matter, it is this: FOMO helps to show the great connectivity we as humans have with one another. Though some may argue that this connectivity is an interdependence, there is still an inherent beauty in knowing that humans need others. It shows how deeply entwined the web of humanity really is.

And even if you find yourself on a Friday night alone at home with no plans, enjoy the company of being alone. Rejoice in knowing that the world around you is buzzing with people enjoying one another. Though you may not be partaking directly in those activities, enjoy the serenity of being simultaneously absent and present in it.

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