The girl in Hans Andersen’s fairy tale The Little Match Girl is lost in the cold winter, unable to sell a few packs of matches, and arrives at a window in front of a house. Outside the window, the people in the house look so warm, cozy, and happy; the girl’s cold and hunger worsens. The biggest anxiety of modern people in the 21st century is that people would have much fun without me and that I might only witness that scene, just like a match girl in a fairy tale.
A contemporary person’s daily routine starts with waking up in the morning and scrolling through Instagram. On social media, people are always busy buying something, enjoying food in beautiful restaurants and cafes, and vacationing in expensive hotels. Seeing this, one feels a sense of alienation and impatience for some reason; to appease emptiness, one watches a YouTube video with the intention to make Dalgona coffee, which is quite trendy these days. Does everyone look happy except for you? Well, it’s time to suspect FOMO syndrome.
What is a FOMO Syndrome?
‘FOMO’ is an abbreviation of Fear of Missing Out; it is typically referred to as ‘isolation fear’ or ‘alienation anxiety syndrome’. Therefore, this term is mainly used to describe ‘fear of missing out or being excluded,’ or ‘vague anxiety about what others are actually having, or appearing to be having, experiences that one has not had'. This can happen, for example, when you don’t understand what others were saying, didn’t watch a popular TV show, or missed out on big social events such as parties or weddings.
The term ‘FOMO’ was first used by Dr. Dan Herman, a marketing strategist. At the time, this new word was used to describe a marketing phenomenon in which consumers become impatient when the supply of the product is reduced, accompanied by slogans such as ‘sold out’ or ‘limited sale’.
However, since 2004, FOMO has been used more often as a psychological term to describe a sociopathological phenomenon and culture. Harvard Business School and Oxford University paid attention to FOMO as one of the sociopathological phenomena, and various papers studied this concept. A Harvard Business School professor, Patrick J. McGinnis, popularized the term FOMO by introducing the term in The Harbus, the graduate school magazine. According to his article, FOMO is “a fear of missing out on the mass flow”— people constantly wish to know what the majority of the people are doing. These desires can lead to compulsion and anxiety that you may miss out on appropriate opportunities to engage in social interactions, new experiences, and lucrative investments. As such, FOMO has recently contributed to various negative psychological and behavioral symptoms of contemporary people.
As the internet and social media developed further, Dr. Dan Herman, the pioneer of the term ‘FOMO’, mentioned this word again. He stated that FOMO has become more severe and widespread through the use of the mobile phone— especially social media and texting applications. The Internet has made the lives of more people open and easily accessible, which could lead to more severe anxiety. Dr. Herman also noted that the word FOMO has helped shape the symptom— fear of missing a popular fad.
Symptoms of FOMO
The fear of missing out on something or not getting on the flow stems from the feeling of missing out on social connections or information. To fill this void, people feel the need or desire to stay connected with others. As such, FOMO increases both negative psychological effects and negative behavioral patterns.
Fear of missing out on popular trends is closely related to a lack of psychological needs. According to the self-determination theory of psychology, there are three basic psychological needs of humans: autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Among them, the lower the ‘relationship’ and ‘competence’, the lower the basic psychological satisfaction. Thus, the lower the basic psychological satisfaction, the higher the FOMO. In addition, FOMO can have negative psychological effects on overall mood and life satisfaction in general. According to a 2018 survey conducted at McGill University in Canada, students who continued to experience FOMO throughout the semester had significantly higher levels of stress and fatigue than those who did not. Also, a 2013 study conducted by JW Intelligence, found that FOMO can adversely affect long-term planning, self-formation, and low self-esteem. About half of the respondents in this study replied that they feel tired all the time because of the amount of information they need to keep up with the latest trends. Plus, some of them answered that they feel satisfaction from not only keeping up with the latest trends but also being the first one to share the newest and the most attractive information. These people reported that FOMO has led to negative social and emotional experiences such as relative deprivation, dissatisfaction, boredom, and loneliness. Another study conducted in 2013 by Psychology Today also found that FOMO has an unfavorable effect on the mood and life satisfaction of contemporary people and can have the effect of lowering self-esteem. This study found that approximately 4 out of 10 adolescents experience FOMO. Thus, FOMO is more likely to be experienced at a young age, and women are more likely to experience it than men would. As such, an anonymous user from the university community “Everytime” wrote, “Everyone is enjoying the water festival these days, but I’m the only one not joining the trend.” “Am I not fitting in? I can’t help comparing myself to others.”
Overshadowed by the negative psychological effects of FOMO, negative behavioral patterns tend to go unnoticed. However, many people who experience FOMO develop or heighten negative habits to maintain social connections. A 2019 survey and study of 467 adolescents at the University of Glasgow found that contemporary young people feel social pressure to always be ready to embrace new information. Additionally, according to John M. Grohol, founder and editor-in-chief of Psych Central, people who experience FOMO are constantly looking for new relationships with others, and they tend to easily give up their existing relationships in favor of new ones.
FOMO, heightened by the development of SNS, had a particularly negative effect on the behavior and habits of adolescents, especially college students. These negative habits and behaviors include increased mobile phone use, texting while driving, and checking social media during lectures. In addition, while meeting with other people, they would not stay away from using their mobile phones, which could worsen their social relationships. Also, staying online to keep up with the trend may jeopardize sleep patterns. The aforementioned 2018 McGill University study found that, among college students, a culture of drinking until late at night on college campuses played a big part in reduced sleep time. For example, if one wouldn’t join the overnight drinking party, one would be afraid that he or she is the only one unable to participate in the conversation. This would eventually lead to excessive drinking habits among college students in order to keep up with the trend, which is another adverse consequence of FOMO.
What Causes FOMO?
Examples of social media platforms that cause FOMO in modern society include Instagram, Facebook, and Snapchat. In particular, the “Story” function, which allows you to easily share your recent status on Instagram for 24 hours, makes it easier to experience FOMO because one can see what his or her acquaintances ate and went in real-time. As mentioned, several times earlier, FOMO is closely related to the use of social media because it connects people with people and best shows the lives of people in various countries around the world. These features of social media show that other people on social media are having a fun and beneficial experience, while on the one hand, it gives a sense of relative deprivation of “I’m not involved.” The fear of missing out on the latest trends can lead to symptoms such as anxiety and loneliness. Some people who have low self-esteem due to FOMO tend to judge their self-worthiness based on how happy the lives of others they see on social media seem. In addition, recent social media applications have the function of collecting posts with many “likes” or “views” and uploading them to recommended posts, which makes the viewers lose a sense of belonging. Thus, people experiencing FOMO increasingly access other people’s social life and are exposed to an ever-increasing amount of real-time information. According to a 2012 New York Times survey of 300 US citizens in their 20s, about 83% of the survey respondents replied they had an information overload because there was too much to see and read. These people also responded that they fear missing out on a constant stream of information provided to them through social media, and sometimes even felt bad for not keeping up to date with relevant information. Also, social media clearly shows what people are doing offline as well as online. An example would be a party or event that people wouldn’t want to miss. According to a 2019 New York Times survey of 500 U.S. citizens between the ages of 12 and 67, 40% felt a sense of isolation from not keeping up with the latest trends offline, the main cause being social media. Among those who took part in the survey, the MZ generation experienced more FOMO than other age groups, and this is because adolescents use social media much more frequently than the older generation.
Although a less well-known cause of FOMO compared to social media, games could also be a cause of FOMO. People who like to play games want to be part of a group they belong to when it comes to games, and they tend to value a sense of belonging. These gamers, often game addicts, tend to equate their social identity with the characters in the game. They fear that if they do not log into the game often, they’ll be isolated from the group members they play with and miss the opportunity to become an active member of the community. In the case of game addicts, FOMO is used to describe anxiety about missing out on the ability to acquire in-game items or complete activities that are only available for a limited time, such as a “battle pass.” This is especially common in multiplayer games. Showing off one’s skills or items to other players in the game means a high status in the gaming community. As a result, there are gamers who fear that they will not be able to get along with the players of “high status” if they do not get premium or limited-edition items, or if they do not show off their flamboyant game skills. This soon leads to more severe game addiction. As such, FOMO not only causes anxiety and depression but also brings about other adverse psychological symptoms such as addiction.
As it is a word derived from advertising and marketing techniques, FOMO is also often used in businesses— in fact, quite prevalently in contemporary society. The first example is AT&T’s “Don’t be left behind” advertising slogan. AT&T, the world’s largest telecommunications corporation, used FOMO in the advertisement to encourage people to join the network in order to keep up with their friends’ updates, receive messages, and send emails at high speeds. Another example is associated with the advertisements that include a countdown timer to explicitly show there’s not much time left until the customer misses the sale. This creates a sense of unease that someone else might take the opportunity of buying the product. In South Korea, home shopping companies undoubtedly make the best use of FOMO. The hosts of the home shopping advertisements would give lengthy explanations about which celebrities are using their products and how popular the products are. Then, they would emphasize phrases such as “sold out,” “nearly out of stock,” and “limited quantity” to stimulate the consumers’ FOMO psychology. In this way, the advertisements deceive consumers as if they are missing out on a rare opportunity to purchase a popular product at a discounted price if they do not purchase the product immediately.
Lastly, money investments, such as stocks and Bitcoin, could cause the FOMO syndrome. After hearing the news that someone made profits several times by investing in stocks or Bitcoin through social media or word of mouth, some people would rush and invest their money in fear that they could miss the opportunity for making a lot of money. In some cases, it is even possible to borrow money from others to make investments. Media emphasizing “quick return through investment” are also contributing to the creation of FOMO. These symptoms are particularly noticeable among novice investors. This is because, if novice investors rush to invest due to FOMO, there is a high risk that their investments would yield an unexpected result. As they’ve got no psychological leeway, decisions would be made in a short period of time without scrutinizing the stock markets or considering their financial situations. In particular, people with limited financial resources are more likely to show this type of investment propensity to make a lot of money in a short period of time. As such, if risky investments due to FOMO syndrome continue, not only economic but also psychological problems such as gambling addiction may occur among the investors. Also, even if one earns a reward, one will gradually develop a tolerance and respond only to a large profit. This may lead to situations in which one does not feel small bits of happiness in one’s real life. In other words, one would be rather than delaying present gratification for the future one, people would gradually seek immediate rewards. Therefore, they wouldn’t be able to learn the concept of ‘effort and reward.'
The FOMO syndrome of the 2020s is quite complex; physical isolation, caused by COVID-19, has occurred in addition to virtual isolation. The easiest way to tackle FOMO is to stay away from social media; however, at the same time, this method is the most difficult. In an era when we are a little reluctant to meet in person due to the COVID-19 pandemic, staying away from social media connections would only increase anxiety. Therefore, experts recommend keeping the connection but to reduce the time and frequency of social media use little by little. Thus, it is beneficial to set a specific time or period a day and check the posts only at that time for a while. It is also important to ensure that the actions of others do not motivate your actions. If someone wants to buy something because someone else buys it, it is recommended to wait at most a day, at least for 6 hours. This is because as time passes, the public’s attention would shift elsewhere; no one would buy yesterday’s stuff, therefore your interest in that product would also eventually drop. In addition, it is important to realize and understand that the lives of others, which seem exciting and glamorous, are in fact no different from ordinary people’s lives. Above all, the ultimate way to escape FOMO is to get used to the stability of a certain distance. You can break free from FOMO by realizing that when you take one step away from others, you would get closer to yourself. The founder of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, mentioned: “Change FOMO to JOMO,” which refers to Joy of Missing Out. His words mean that it is not about what choices you make; it is about your ability to make your decisions into good choices. In fact, this method is also the surest secret to overcoming FOMO syndrome.
In order to resolve the FOMO syndrome that is prevalent in society, some corporations market advertisements that are against FOMO. A prime example is Heineken’s “Sunrise” campaign. The Sunrise Campaign is unique; it positively stimulates the FOMO of the audience. Rather than arguing that excessive drinking poses a threat to one’s health, it encourages responsible drinking by portraying it as a way to miss out on the funniest part of a party. Another example is Nescafe’s “Wake up to life” campaign. This advertisement received favorable reviews because it contained a message against FOMO. Nescafe is a coffee brand, therefore this advertisement is about getting away from the busy modern society and the flood of information, and rather focusing more on existing relationships and enjoying a cup of coffee. One of the South Korean corporations against FOMO has introduced a ‘digital detox’ product, which encourages JOMO (Joy of Missing Out) as opposed to FOMO. This corporation has been advertising serotonin walking, healing resorts, healing yoga, forest prenatal camp, and many more to encourage the audience to get away from all electronic devices and gain mental relaxation.
If you vaguely feel like you must do what others are doing, and you feel jealous and alienated about what you can’t participate in, you are probably experiencing FOMO syndrome. Even if one's participation, of course, is limited, one become pathologically anxious about things that one cannot experience. Social media has become a means of reinforcing FOMO syndrome. The colorful sights that appear one after another when you open the social media application create a sense of alienation, but it is difficult to delete the application because you would miss useful information. New acquisitions do not last long, even if the anxiety is put to rest. This is because new information is constantly pouring in.
Before comparing your life with others because you are too deceived by what you see on social media, how about rethinking your life goals? Taking enough time to close the distance with yourself and giving yourself time to think deeply about what you really want would help you to strengthen your inner self.