Arts and Humanities People and Community

FOMO got a hold on you?

Social media platforms feed the “fear of missing out.” University specialists offer tips on managing scrolling habits.

Regina Ahn understands the dilemma of trying to control—and not be controlled by—the social media juggernaut that “operates 24/7 and knows no daytime or nighttime.” 

She experienced the compulsions in her own life both as a highschooler and college student who felt isolated from her peers because of her academic focus—and has observed countless examples in her research. 

Regina Ahn
Regina Ahn

“The environment of digital technology, social media, and the nature of algorithms is making it more difficult to resist the FOMO experience,” said Ahn, an assistant professor in the Department of Strategic Communication at the University of Miami School of Communication. “And the nature of social media is making it worse about how we feel about missing out.” 

Young people are especially susceptible to the online barrage of prompts, enticements, and marketing manipulations, Ahn said. 

“The younger generation—children and adolescents—are at a stage when they’re developing their identity, this sense of who they are, and social media is constantly distracting and lowering their esteem,” Ahn said. 

Aaron Heller, an associate professor in the Department of Psychology at the College of Arts and Sciences and director of the Cognitive and Behavioral Neuroscience Division, emphasized FOMO’s social component and described the phenomenon as “a simulation that we do in our minds of what other people are doing or experiencing in the absence of us being present.” 

As a simulated or imagined exercise with the potential to induce worry, Heller associated FOMO with eating disorders or generalized anxiety disorders. 

Aaron Heller
Aaron Heller

“Worry is a cardinal symptom of generalized anxiety disorders where you’re simulating the future over and over again—often in worst-case outcomes,” Heller noted. “From the brain’s perspective, it’s a very similar process. You’re worrying or thinking to yourself: ‘If I don’t do this, I’m going to fail this class or certain people are not going to like me.’” 

Heller highlighted that simulation is based on past experiences and that you can only imagine what is going to happen based on experiences that you’ve already had. When we use our imagination for things in the future, we use the same brain circuits that are necessary for forming memories, he said. 

“If we use our past experience to make expectations and imagination into the future, we’re going to extract certain things from those past experiences to make these simulations in our mind. So, if you’re somebody who, for a variety of reasons is more anxious and depressed, you may have a bias to simulate things in the future that way,” he pointed out. 

Unlike other behaviors that can become addictive, such as alcohol or smoking, Ahn noted that online searching and scrolling may appear harmless or inoffensive. 

“A lot of people, especially young people, don’t think it’s a problem. With alcoholism or smoking you can see the problem—there are health issues or family problems. But for those who may be constantly scrolling and feel anxious, they often don’t feel a direct effect,” said Ahn, adding that the behavior has reached a problematic stage when the child or adolescent senses there is a problem. 

“That’s the real thing—they need to recognize and acknowledge that they need to fix this [obsessive usage]. Otherwise, things will get worse, they will feel more anxious about their social network, and more anxious about what they share,” she said. 

“That anxiety accumulates and then becomes an unhealthy media habit or has an unhealthy effect on your body or your mental health,” Ahn said. “If something makes you feel uncomfortable above the stress level, you will see changes in your lifestyle—such as you’re not going to school [because of some occurrence], you are excessively distracted on social media or you’re ignoring other important parts of your life. Recognizing these red flags—and the need for intervention—is critical.” 

Ahn’s research focuses on media literacy and education, parental mediation, and social media, and recently joined a school task force that is exploring how to educate on media literacy. 

She highlighted the role that parents can and should play in terms of regulating online usage. 

“Parents have a huge influence on their children’s media habits,” she noted. “The parents’ role is important in fostering healthy communication with their children. Establishing a balanced and open dialogue lays the foundation for discussing various topics, including media usage, in a constructive manner.” 

For students and young adults, Ahn urged the importance of talking with peers and sharing concerns that you may have about your online time or related anxieties. 

“Many of us are experiencing this [dilemma]. You may feel stuck in a well or a little jar, where others won’t understand the type of FOMO that you’re going through,” she said. “But it’s important to talk with others in order to get out of that vicious cycle that you may be experiencing.” 

For her work and research, Ahn spends a significant time online, but she does so differently than in the past. To avoid the negative impacts of social media, she is far more intentional about ignoring likes and dislikes and commentary about herself. She recommended turning off all online app notifications and instead checking periodically. 

Heller suggested mindfulness techniques, interrupting your routine or shifting your physical space to create new thinking patterns as a way to counteract FOMO’s pull. 

“Particularly with something like anxiety, worries can become habitual, so breaking them requires having some mental distance between you and your thoughts—you can interrupt the pattern,” he said. 

“Think to yourself: Is this something I really care about? Is this something I really want to do? How important is this to me relative to what I might have been wanting to do before I found out about this party?” Heller said. “Then you can make a good decision and perhaps be a little less impulsive.”