FOMO – An Origin Story

How to avoid the curse of FOMO when scrolling through your favorite social media sites

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Photo Credit: David Iskander | Unsplash
Photo Credit: David Iskander | Unsplash

Today’s digital age is filled with a seemingly endless list of social media platforms that keep us up to date on everything everyone is doing all the time. It’s great! Or is it?

You have LinkedIn telling you to congratulate your former colleague for recently becoming a vice president. Facebook notifications with all of the new pictures of your friends showing just how perfect their vacation, engagement, kids, and families are. Friends Snapping and Instagramming pictures of decadent foods, insane parties, and every single fun moment you are missing.

Inevitably, that’s when the dreaded four-letter acronym kicks in: FOMO (or “fear of missing out”).

It may be hard to believe, but there was a time before FOMO even existed.

In fact, FOMO didn’t exist until 2004. Don’t get me wrong, I imagine the feeling of dread and anxiety that FOMO so aptly describes has been around for about as long as humans have roamed the Earth. Heck, I can tell that my dog feels FOMO from time to time, so it’s not even specific to just humans! But the term FOMO is actually relatively new.

So where did it come from?

In my recently published book titled Redefining Success: Stories, Science, and Strategies to Prioritize Happiness and Overcome Life’s “Oh Sh!t” Moments, I was fortunate enough to interview Patrick McGinnis (venture capitalist) who was able to share a bit about FOMO’s origin story.

In our interview, Patrick shared “I just tried to do it all to the point where I was constantly feeling a sense of anxiety and stress, which I named FOMO, short for ‘fear of missing out.’ I even wrote an article in a school newspaper back in 2004 called, ‘Social Theory at HBS: McGinnis’ Two FOs.’”

I know what you’re thinking: “There’s no way Patrick invented the term FOMO.” Go ahead, google the origins of FOMO.

I kid you not; Patrick is actually credited with the creation of this now ubiquitous term. So thank you, Patrick!

And in case you’re wondering, the other less commonly used “FO” Patrick coined is FOBO, fear of a better option. FOBO is often the culprit for the feeling of FOMO.

FOMO and Social Media Usage – A Case Study

Fast forward 17 years and FOMO has become so commonplace that you can even find it mentioned in peer-reviewed research.

For instance, going back to our social media example, there are countless studies illustrating that increased social media usage is correlated with decreased sleep and higher levels of anxiety and depression. Some studies even take it a step further to correlate rising suicide rates in adolescents to social media usage. And despite it not being an official medical condition, FOMO is often cited in the research as a cause (Mir, Nova, and Seymour, 2021).

In 2018, the first prospective study across multiple social media platforms found “limiting social media usage does have a direct and positive impact on subjective wellbeing over time, especially with respect to decreasing loneliness and depression” (Hunt et al., 2018).

The same 2018 study found that limiting our social media usage to thirty minutes a day seemed to be the sweet spot. Additionally, the researchers highlighted that improving our own self-monitoring and awareness of how we feel would be beneficial. It’s about catching ourselves when we stop celebrating others’ successes and instead turn inwards to compare our lives to theirs.

While this study does provide a nice starting point as guidance, I would argue that understanding your own personal sweet spot is highly reliant on you. Things like age, socioeconomic status, introvert vs. extrovert, cultural norms, religion, personality, interests, upbringing, family life, and a whole host of other factors all feed into the metaphorical equation that determines how much and what forms of social media each one of us can consume before hitting our threshold.

Unfortunately, it seems the ideal balance is achieved through experimentation and self-reflection. After spending some time scrolling through your favorite social media site, ask yourself:

  • How do I feel?
  • Was there content that made me feel more negative about myself?
  • When I saw someone else’s positive news, did I turn inward and feel jealous, insecure, or less accomplished?

By being mindful and reflective, we can continue to enjoy our social media guilty pleasures while avoiding the curse of FOMO.

Happy scrolling!

References:

Biarnes, Michael. Redefining Success: Stories, Science, and Strategies to Prioritize Happiness and Overcome Life’s “Oh Sh!t” Moments. Maryland: New Degree Press, 2021.

Hunt, Melissa, Rachel Marx, Courney Lipson, and Jordyn Young. “No More FOMO: Limiting Social Media Decreases Loneliness and Depression.” Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology 37, no. 10 (December 2018). https://doi.org/10.1521/ jscp.2018.37.10.751

Mir, Elina, Caroline Nova, and Meg Seymour. “Social Media and Adolescents’ and Young Adults’ Mental Health.” National Center for Health Research. Accessed September 8, 2021. https://www.center4research.org/social-media-affects-mental-health/.

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