The Fear Of Missing Out and how it is evolving in today’s digital age

In today’s digital age, everyone is always on, always hooked up to the internet. No life is truly private as this new habit of ‘sharing’ has spread throughout society. As people continue recording their everyday life and sharing the content on social media for all to see, people will continue suffering from FOMO.

FOMO was added to the Oxford Dictionary in 2013, defining it as “Anxiety that an exciting or interesting event may currently be happening elsewhere, often aroused by posts seen on a social media website[1]”. Although FOMO was only recently made into a legitimate word, the idea behind it has been around for decades. FOMO is simply a modern take on the old idiom, “the grass is always greener on the other side”. One uses this proverb to say that the things other people have or their situations always look better than your own, even when they are not really so.

I. History of FOMO

In 2000, Dan Herman produced the first paper on this newly introduced ailment, and this unknown phenomenon affecting our generation. It was only after many years, did the concept truly stick with society and become a known, and widely used term. Certain studies show that upwards of 70% of all adults in developed countries suffer from the all-consuming feeling that something grand is going on, and they are missing out on it.

In 2013, Andrew Przybylski, an Oxford psychologist, published a major academic study on FOMO and proved how the phenomenon correlates with general discontent. Even further, it disproportionately affects young people, particularly males. Society went crazy, with articles coming from every major site, spewing headlines like “Could Your FOMO kill you?’ or “How to Cure FOMO”. FOMO had put down its roots in society and people were finally beginning to notice it.

FOMO is not a tangible disease, meaning it is more emotional and mental, than physical. Even further, it lacks an origin one can pinpoint or prove. It may appear that, in actuality, it is a man-made disease, and the more people write about it, the more ‘real’ it becomes. Patrick McGinnis, Harvard Graduate, penned an op-ed piece about his own personal fear, not of missing out, but fear of a better option. He described his own personal opinion of where the idea of FOMO came from. Back when McGinnis and his fellow classmates were applying to business schools, they were experiencing a full on case of anxiety. It was the time when the dot com boom inflated the economy right before annihilating it to bits. Then, September 11th happened, leaving many uncertain about their own futures. McGinnis and his class vowed to regard every moment as an opportunity and live life to the fullest. Yet, they lacked an important piece — commitment. Planning their social lives to fit in all these ‘opportunities’ came at a cost. Their attempts to develop complex algorithms in order to keep track of it all was a grand effort but ultimately, they realized it was too much to handle. They named this anxiety, “FOBO” or fear of a better option.

Ultimately, it was not just the fact that they had a better option, but there was an even bigger, underlying anxiety. “Wherever you deposit yourself at any moment, you were setting yourself up to fail relatively speaking. McGinnis and his friends dubbed this more pervasive dread FOMO, for Fear of Missing Out. Out on what? They weren’t exactly sure. But the unknown can be terrifying[2]”.

FOMO became a hallmark of the digital age, and an affliction that would grip society as it moved into the age of social media and technology. Although it was not his goal, McGinnis started a domino effect that the millennials would come to understand. McGinnis wrote his theory of FOBO and FOMO, and the feelings it produced for the Harvard Business School’s student newspaper, the Harbus.

McGinnis described being ‘Always On’, how he would jump from one activity to the next until the early hours of the morning. “You’d always have trouble getting people to commit,” he says, “and I think that was a new phenomenon at the time, because before the age of mass social media, people made plans and then they stuck with them. Because what else were you going to do? And so you’d make a plan for Friday night and you’d go somewhere, and you’d stay there, and that’s what you did[3]”.

One of the main issues with the early form of FOMO is lacking a tool to stay connected wherever and whenever. In early 2003, a remedy was introduced in the form of texting. Society started mass texts, opening up Pandora’s Box and letting out volumes of FOMO.

Then, a Harvard dropout would produce the next tool that would make FOMO flourish — The Facebook.

In 2007, FOMO seemed to be catching on, and spreading from neighborhood to neighborhood. The desire to participate in this new social society meant spending tens of thousands of dollars on an extravagant lifestyle, just to have a chance to show it off to others.

In 2008, an ad depicting the dangers of FOMO finally came out to the public. The ad depicted a poor patient literally paralyzed by indecision about what to do on a Friday night. McGinnis had predicted this effect, what he calls FODA, or fear of doing anything. What used to be just a theory or hypothetical situation, is now an actual effect. With people more worried about scrolling through social media, people are less focused on what to do, or what sort of fun activity should they try. It’s more about taking pictures and proving you were doing something social. The rise of social media provides society with a constant influx of what we do not have. Since people are always bringing their phones with them, FOMO is on the go, and always in your pocket. With Twitter followed by Instagram, Pinterest, and finally Snapchat, FOMO is latching on and growing even more powerful by the year.

II. FOMO and Social Media

The ability to imagine how things could be different is not a new phenomenon. Yet, with social media, the difference is the immediacy. FOMO is now happening in real time. Whatever angst people may feel when they see someone else having a good time is exaggerated by the overall effect of so many new social data streams pouring into their browsers and mobile phones all at once. Not only do people see the Facebook posts, but they are also hit with tweets and Instagram photos, and Snapchats. Kevin Systrom, Chief Executive of Instagram says, “We aren’t used to seeing the world as it happens, we as humans can only process so much data[4]”.

Caterina Fake, CEO of Flickr says that “social software is both the creator and the cure of FOMO; it’s cyclical[5]”. While no one like to feel alone and social media should offer a way to stay connected to other, it brings about different results. People end up feeling more out of touch and distant. In the last decade, social networking sites have grown exponentially. Facebook boasts 1.28 billion active users on the site per month, with at least 802 million logging in every single day. Caplan’s social skill model of generalized problematic Internet use offers one theory to explain online addiction. The model states that individuals who prefer to communicate in an online environment are at greater risk of experiencing negative outcomes related to excessive online use. These individuals demonstrate deficient self — regulation of Internet use. Studies show that they tend to engage in online social communication as a means of escaping from negative mood. However, this reinforces online use, and thus a circle has been created. Even further, studies have shown that those individuals with low psychosocial wellbeing, such as loneliness, anxiety or depression, were motivated to use Facebook to find some sort of social support or to pass time. This temporary lift in mood leads to deficient self-regulation, due to negative reinforcement.

FOMO can drive us to make decisions we originally did not want to make. Our time is finite, and life requires careful consideration about how to spend it. A study done by mylife[6] revealed that 56% of people are afraid of missing out on events, news and important status updates if they are away from social network. Going off that statistic, it is no surprise that 27% of survey participants flock to social sites as soon as they wake up. If an individual wants to stay home on a Friday night, they might be barraged by different pictures and statuses showcasing how much fun they’re having. That same individual might be regretting their decision to stay in and vow to go out the next time no matter what.

III. Measuring FOMO

People high in FOMO feel less competent, less autonomous, and less connected with others than people who don’t worry about being left out, according to a study published in the journal “Computers in Human Behavior[7]”. Andrew Przybylski searched for a way to measure FOMO. The researchers used a ten- question questionnaire to rate the FOMO of a national sample of 2,079 22- to 65-year-old United Kingdom residents. They also asked the participants about their social media engagement, their life satisfaction and how autonomous, competent and connected to others they felt in their daily lives. The results revealed that the less people felt autonomy, competence and connectedness in their daily lives, the more they felt FOMO. Even further, people high in FOMO also used social media more. “For people who feel very secure in their relationships, their relationships are important to them, but they don’t feel compelled to always be connected[8],” Przybylski states.

FOMO can be understood by studying self-determination theory. Self-determination can be satisfied by 3 psychological needs. Those three are, the capacity to effectively act on the world, autonomy, or self-authorship or personal initiative, and relatedness or closeness or connectedness with others. FOMO is a self-regulatory limbo arising from situational or chronic deficits in psychological need satisfactions. The fear of missing out could serve as a mediator linking deficits in psychological needs to social media engagement.

IV. FOMO and our Relationship with Technology

FOMO signifies a monumental shift in our relationship with technology. From a certain perspective, we have an immature relationship with technology. Digital natives believe technology is an extension of their body. Many millennials bring their phone everywhere, from business meetings to the bathroom. 75 percent of Americans have actually admitted to using their mobile phones while in the bathroom, according to one study done by marketing company 11Mark. They asked 1,000 Americans about their bathroom habits and 75% said the in fact do bring their phones while on a potty break[9]. This expresses the newly acquired personality trait — we are lacking self-control. It is an impulse control problem that we cannot curb. Being connected to the world has made it almost impossible to be patient or take a break from it. Decades ago, it was a luxury to know what society was up to. When newspapers first came out, it was a miracle and a blessing to know what one’s neighbors were up to. But, as society was given more technology with an ever increasing list of updates, we no longer are grateful of this link to the rest of the world. Instead, we expect it.

This impatience translates into a need for instant gratification in all aspects of our lives. The Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project sums up a recent study about people under the age of 35 and the dangers of their hyper connected lives, “Negative effects include a need for instant gratification and loss of patience[10]”. The reason it affects the younger generation the most is because they have been wired since birth. This generation has grown up with social media, Netflix, high-speed internet, and same-day shipping. Everything is in real time. When people post pictures on their Instagram or Facebook, it is consumed right away. Even further, Snapchat, the newest contender in social media, tracks an event in real time, almost posing as a flipbook of the event as it happens.

V. Advertising FOMO

Marketers used to believe that sex sells. Advertisers would sexualize their product believing that this was the key to a high return. However, society is slowly realizing that no longer are marketers using sex to sell a product. Nowadays, they are using something completely different, but ten times as powerful. They are advertising based on one simple algorithm. Advertising is based on happiness, and happiness is the freedom from fear. In Marketing 201, students learn the basics. If you need to sell a product, look for a need for that product, and if there is none, go out and make the need, whether that is creating a physical need, or crafting a mental or emotional one. The goal is to pinpoint a product that offers temporary ‘freedom from fear’. It is even better if you can actually pull together a campaign targeting the actual fear of missing out. “Fear of missing out drives the upgrade culture around smartphones and technology but even applies to embracing danger[11]”.

According to a new survey of Canadian Millennials by Citizen Relations, FOMO is actually a major driver of teen spending. Teens tend to spend based on their friend’s activity on social media. Results show that it increased with affluence, and tends to cover a wide range of categories like social events, dining, and products. The survey also concluded that 64% of all Canadians who partook in the study admitted to experiencing FOMO as a direct result of social media. 56% of Canadians ages 18–30 said FOMO has provoked a desire to “live large” after scrolling through social media and seeing what others are doing. Citizen Relation’s notes: “The combination of real time access to peers’ experiences in a visual context and the desire to not be left behind is the driving force for this age group to crave these same experiences, from parties and events to trips and vacations[12]”. As a result of FOMO, 68% of Millennials said they will make a purchase as a result of seeing it on social media. Though the survey offered a few somewhat negative conclusions, such as teens purposely sharing experiences in order to create FOMO in others, there were a few positive results stemming from the survey. Millennials seem to be adapting to FOMO by taking a more positive view of feelings like jealousy and envy. Traditionally viewed as negative and leading to judgment or disdain for the other person, Millennials are now using these emotions to force them to individually expand their own horizon and try new things.

Though Millennials are the main culprit of FOMO, their parents are suffering from it as well. Parenting has become a sort of competition and a race to see who does the ‘parenting job’ the best. The winner receives nothing more than perhaps bragging rights. Still, in fear that their child is missing out on opportunity and success, parents scramble to push their children to the top. “By the time students reach high school, the compulsion is almost irresistible, Bowers says, to cram in a raft of college-level Advanced Placement and honors classes, and a strict schedule of tutors, SAT prep courses and résumé-burnishing extracurriculars[13]”. The FOMO that these parents possess is just another type of fear that is gripping this generation. Like previously stated, this is a sharing culture. Social Media has destroyed barriers and opened up a new channel of communication. Information is easily accessible and memories can be shared across the world.

In America’s individualistic culture, we experience a grand pleasure in sharing our own accomplishments and successes, including college acceptance. When parents see other people’s success, it make them more inclined to push their own children to succeed and do better. Thus, FOMO does not exclude any group of people; instead, it is a universally known phenomenon.

VI. Closing Thoughts

I am a millennial. That is not an opinion, it is simply a fact. I check my phone when I wake up and mindlessly scroll through Facebook and Instagram when I’m bored. I snap a picture before I eat dinner when out at a fancy restaurant, and have said the phrase “I need to Instagram this” more times than I can count. I have also had the wonderful pleasure of experiencing the great and powerful FOMO. College is a time to make connections and be social, but also a time to learn how to be alone. Being alone is not the same as being anti-social or friendless. Instead, it is a matter of learning how not to need people, and essentially be independent. It’s important to understand that you are strong enough to stay home and enjoy silence. It is also okay to say no when friends ask you to go out. One of the most important lessons I have learned from college, is that you should do whatever makes you happy, and do it even if no one is with you. If you want to go to a museum, do not wait for people to join you. Nowadays, there is a popular thought amongst society that everything needs to be a social event. I would disagree. It is okay to enjoy something on your own. Do not fear missing out on something; instead, go out and do what makes you happy, and you will never fear anything again.

Society is no longer allowed to be ‘bored’. How can we even experience boredom with social media blaring in our faces at all hours of the day and night? Children are introduced early to the fascination of iPads and iPhones, and the ability to find out anything they want with a few clicks on a screen. Yet, it is not just that we are not allowed to be bored, but we mentally do not know how to be it. No longer can we sit and stare out into space, or experience a long session of meditation and deep thinking. Instead, we fill car trips and moments of silence with a social media check. We scroll through our various applications, receive updates on our friends and family, and find out what is going on in pop culture. 15 minutes later, we repeat the cycle. Thus, boredom is an outdated term. No longer are we bored; instead, we find ways to simply distract ourselves.

Even though boredom is not exactly an accurate term nowadays, it does not mean we don’t fear it. We fear all sorts and style of boredom. We fear what we did not do, opportunities that fell by the wayside, and not going outside when the temperature is perfect. People who are high up in their career even sometimes get hit with a powerful wave of FOMO. FOMO has become a way to measure your success and whether you truly made an identity for yourselves. It makes people ponder whether their life is too redundant and irrelevant, and if we are experiencing enough in our everyday lives. With so much emphasis on making every day worth it, there is simply not enough time to do it all. It is almost evident that you will miss half of what you actually want to do. Thus, perhaps FOMO is in fact, inevitable. It is possible that FOMO is simply a way of life that society must come to terms with. We must fight through the FOMO and find joy in what we do have, not sorrow in what we don’t. We must stop comparing our grass to that of the neighbors. FOMO is only powerful if you let it control you. Control your FOMO and you will control your life.

Watch a College Humor spoof on FOMO here

Take a test to find out your FOMO here


Hedges, Kristi. “Do You Have FOMO: Fear Of Missing Out?” Forbes. Forbes Magazine, 27 Mar. 2014. Web. 16 Apr. 2015.

Schreckinger, Ben. “The History of FOMO.” Boston Magazine. 1 Aug. 2014. Web. 16 Apr. 2015.

Schreckinger, 2014 Wortham, Jenna. “Feel Like a Wallflower? Maybe It’s Your Facebook Wall.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 9 Apr. 2011. Web. 18 Apr. 2015.

Kelly, Samantha. “Report: 56% of Social Media Users Suffer From FOMO.” Mashable. 9 July 2013. Web. 23 Apr. 2015.

Chan, Amanda. “Life Dissatisfaction Linked With Fear Of Missing Out, Study Finds.” The Huffington Post., 14 May 2013. Web. 14 Apr. 2015.

Chan, 2013

Castillo, Michelle. “Survey: 75 Percent of Americans Admit to Using Phone While in Bathroom.” CBSNews. CBS Interactive, 2 Feb. 2012. Web. 13 Apr. 2015.

Castillo, 2012

Peretti, Jacques. “SUVs, Handwash and FOMO: How the Advertising Industry Embraced Fear.” The Gaurdian. 6 July 2014. Web. 13 Apr. 2015.

Sass, Erik. “FOMO Drives Teen Spending.” Social Media and Marketing Daily. 10 Mar. 2015. Web. 23 Apr. 2015.

Schulte, Bridget. “In McLean, a Crusade to Get People to Back off in the Parenting Arms Race.” Washington Post. The Washington Post, 23 Mar. 2014. Web. 16 Apr. 2015.

One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.