The FoMo Health Factor
Can fear of missing out cause mental and physical health problems?
Posted November 30, 2016
Do you ever experience that feeling that you're missing out on something important or rewarding? Of course you do.
Whether it's a chance to meet someone new and exciting, get in on a hot new investment prospect, travel somewhere fun, or experience the valuable life experiences that many of your friends are enjoying, this all-important fear of missing out, more popularly known as FoMo, has become a vital part of modern culture. Not to mention a hot new Internet meme. Formally defined as “a pervasive apprehension that others might be having rewarding experiences from which one is absent...characterized by the desire to stay continually connected with what others are doing”, recent surveys suggest that three-quarters of all young people are experiencing unease over possibly missing out on something that their peers are doing.
While the rise of social media and various other high-tech ways of staying in contact has made FoMo more common than ever, there is nothing new about envying other people or wondering if you should have followed another life path. If anything, FoMo can be found in every culture and in every part of the world. In Singapore, for example, the Hokkien word "kiasu" is commonly used to mean "fear of missing out" and similar words can be found in numerous other languages.
Still, up to now, most research into FoMo has focused on how it relates to social media use. Overall, studies have shown that people high in FoMo tend to have lower general mood, reduced self-esteem, and feelings of loneliness and inferiority, especially for those who have the sense that other people are generally more successful than they are. All of which can contribute to a vicious cycle of negative outcomes as greater depression leads to greater FoMo.
But it isn't just emotional health that can be affected. Not only can increased depression lead to physical health problems, but there is evidence that mindfulness can be affected as well. Usually defined as "a mental state achieved by focusing one's awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one's feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations", people high in mindfulness typically have fewer problems with social anxiety as well as having greater cognitive flexibility. FoMo, on the other hand, can often lead to reduced mindfulness and higher anxiety, not to mention more impulsive social media use.
A new study published in the journal Translational Issues in Psychological Science provides an in-depth look at how FoMo can be linked to physical symptoms, depression, and mindful attention. Zachary Baker and his fellow researchers at the University of Houston recruited 386 university students (average age 21.98) of whom nearly 97 percent reported almost daily social media use (which they checked an average of 16.47 times a day).
All participants completed the Fear of Missing Out scale which includes items such as: "I fear others have more rewarding experiences than me,” and “When I have a good time it is important for me to share the details online (e.g., updating status)." They also completed items measuring time spent on social networking sites, physical symptoms (i.e., headaches, shortness of breath, chest pains, etc.), and depressive symptoms. Participants then completed a 15-item Mindful Attention Awareness scale with items such as “I could be experiencing some emotion and not be conscious of it until sometime later” and “I find it difficult to stay focused on what’s happening in the present.”
Results showed that people with a greater fear of missing out tend to experience more physical and depressive symptoms and also score lower on mindful attention. Even when controlling for amount of time spent online, the link between FoMo and problems with mental and physical health remained strong.
According to Zachary Baker and his co-authors, the relationship between FoMo and poor health can be at least partially explained by the impact that modern technology can have on the way we interact with other people and the world around us. Much like previous research showing a link between FoMo and mobile phone addiction, the fear of missing out can also affect how well people can function in face-to-face social situations as well as academic performance and motivation to succeed.
Considering the cross-sectional design used in this study, the results don't really provide us with any clues about whether FoMo may be causing mental and physical problems or vice-versa. Also, virtually all of the participants in this study were daily social media users (many of whom showed a compulsive need to check and recheck for new posts, etc.). More research is needed to see how FoMo affects non-social media users as well and to get a better idea of how it affects the way people interact in real-life social situations.
Despite the need for additional research, evidence so far suggests that the fear of missing out can play a powerful role in how we socialize with other people, whether online or not. Excessive fear of missing out also seems to be linked to mental and physical health problems as well as issues with mindful attention.
While coming to terms with FoMo often means taking charge of your life and being less preoccupied with what others are doing, this isn't so easy in a world where so much information is available at our fingertips. Still, it is probably more important than ever to recognize how fear of missing out can undermine how we see ourselves and even the way we live our lives.
So pay more attention on your own life and less on the lives of others, for the sake of your health if nothing else.
Baker, Z. G., Krieger, H., & LeRoy, A. S. (2016). Fear of missing out: Relationships with depression, mindfulness, and physical symptoms. Translational Issues in Psychological Science, 2(3), 275-282. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/tps0000075