More and more of us are using social networks as part of our daily lives, and not only one platform, but several at the same time. The negative consequences brought about by this relatively new form of entertainment have become visible over the years: in 2021, Facebook admitted in internal documents that Instagram was harmful to teenage girls. This year, thanks to artificial intelligence, TikTok’s filters have exceeded the limits known until now and have triggered alarms because of their realism and their contribution to the cult of the image. Many are rebelling against this trend, which has done so much harm to users around the world, and are pursuing more natural images.
One of the most defning phenomena of this network-dominated era, which started with the popularity of these platforms, is FOMO (fear of missing out), which began to be talked about as early as 2004. FOMO is often defined as the pervasive fear that others may be living rewarding lives while we are not. Enrique Echeburúa, Professor Emeritus of Clinical Psychology at the University of the Basque Country, maintains that it can be framed within the abusive use or misuse of social networks and nomophobia, which is the extreme (irrational) fear or anxiety of not being in contact by cell phone. “We all experience concern if we do not have that means of communication because the cell phone is already part of our life, but one thing is discomfort and another is the extreme anxiety that a person can experience when the relationship with the cell phone is no longer functional, but emotional,” explains Echeburúa.
In the case of FOMO, anxiety occurs when the sufferer is not connected to social networks or cell phones and, therefore, cannot find out what others are doing. “Since social networks operate 24 hours a day, it’s impossible to keep up with everything that’s happening on them. Everything is happening at breakneck speed and, in many cases, leaves no trace. If you haven’t followed what happened at a particular time, you’ve missed it,” the psychologist points out.
When they open a social network, users can see that their friends (and strangers) are traveling to extraordinary places, having fun at a concert or enjoying an experience that is not available to everyone. For a user suffering from FOMO, all this can bring about a feeling of not taking advantage of their time, or even of being socially excluded. And if there is something that compounds this problem, it is, specifically, comparing oneself with others. Self-esteem can be affected and, if a person has low self-esteem, “they have a greater tendency to compensate for those shortcomings with what others are doing,” says Echeburúa. “As they turn to networks, where they see the lives that others lead, that only gets worse. Immediately, the comparative criterion works: ‘Look at the life they are leading and I can’t.’ The key is to see that they [social networks] are a useful tool, but that’s not what life is about,” he adds.
Summer is a particularly sensitive time for users who suffer from this fear. “On the one hand, people themselves have more free time and, on the other hand, the weather is better, everyone has more vacations, plans, and trips are focused on these months. All this means that what people who upload photos on Instagram or share their experiences on TikTok show is considerably heightened, which is a risk factor; like Christmas is for people with shopping dependence,” explains the professor of Clinical Psychology.
When a user suffers from FOMO, the way they find to try not to miss anything is to constantly check what others are doing. That is, opening Instagram almost compulsively, for example. According to Echeburúa, the compulsion to be constantly connected to social networks comes at a price: “If in addition to being connected to social networks, you do nothing but think about being connected, it means that you are not thinking about other things, that you are not attending to other aspects of your daily reality, such as work, face-to-face social relationships, family, etc.”
In other words, you are not enjoying the present moment and non-virtual reality. This often leads to a loss of sleep: “Even if you set a goal of staying up for an hour or going to bed at 12 or 1 o’clock, you’re still connected when it gets to three o’clock,” adds the psychologist. This is often compounded by the difficulty in maintaining concentration throughout the day, not to mention the financial costs that can occur if someone tries to follow a trend or imitate what others are doing.
An unattainable goal
FOMO leads to [you setting yourself] an impossible goal to achieve because, no matter how much you try to control what is going on in the networks, you can’t keep track of everything. The symptoms that arise from this dependence are anxiety, irritability, malaise and even depression at some point, “in addition to the impoverishment of non-virtual social relationships because they create a kind of parallel world.” Echeburúa compares the practice of being aware of what happens in the networks with trying to keep up with all the gossip; or following the lives of others in reality shows, without missing a detail.
As is often the case with other psychological phenomena, although anyone can suffer from it, in the case of FOMO, there are those with a greater tendency to use it or who are more vulnerable, in other words, adolescents and young people “because it is the time when they are showing off their networks of social relationships,” explains the expert. In addition, if you have an obsessive personality, which is controlling, that makes it easier for this problem to occur. Someone with “poor social skills in real life, who often constructs an imaginary world or pays too much attention to the world that others create” is also more prone. And spending a lot of time using devices and social networks also makes it easier. “If the cell phone is built up to be more than just an instrument that facilitates social relations, contact, and messages, but as your primary element of life, the risk that you will become more involved in the FOMO phenomenon is greater,” he adds.
How can you help someone suffering from FOMO? The first thing to do is to limit the time spent on the networks and for the person to distinguish that world from real, face-to-face life. They should devote time to rewarding activities and forms of relaxation that involve quality non-virtual social relationships and, above all, the sufferer needs to recognize the dependency they have. “Having an addiction, FOMO, or dependence on social networks is socially frowned upon, so a person is not recognized as an addict,” Echeburúa points out.
Sign up for our weekly newsletter to get more English-language news coverage from EL PAÍS USA Edition