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Social media “Fear Of Missing Out” detrimental to our mental well-being

Photo: Bradley Wint/Try Modern

Human beings generally see themselves in the best light possible compared to others. This psychological phenomenon is called illusory superiority. This usually helps boost our self-efficacy, which is basically our ability to better perform tasks or function in different situations.

However, the social media “Fear of Missing Out” trend or FOMO seems to be working against our favour, making us feel less superior when compared to others. The FOMO concept recently gained popularity thanks to sites like Facebook and Instagram that encourage us to share our social experiences; and now there’s a study to back this theory.

According to the study conducted by researchers at Cornell University, Sebastian Deri and his colleagues found that people have a generally pessimistic view on their social lives when compared to others, which goes against the whole illusory superiority theory.

Although decades of research show that people tend to see themselves in the best possible light, we present evidence that people have a surprisingly grim outlook on their social lives. In 11 studies (N = 3,293; including 3 preregistered), we find that most people think that others lead richer and more active social lives than they do themselves. We show that this bias holds across multiple populations (college students, MTurk respondents, shoppers at a local mall, and participants from a large, income-stratified online panel), correlates strongly with well-being, and is particularly acute for social activities (e.g., the number of parties one attends or proximity to the “inner circle” of one’s social sphere). We argue that this pessimistic bias stems from the fact that trendsetters and socialites come most easily to mind as a standard of comparison and show that reducing the availability of extremely social people eliminates this bias. We conclude by discussing implications for research on social comparison and self-enhancement.

People generally have a negative outlook on their social lives because they compare the sum of their social activities to snapshots of other people’s social lives. The problem with social media is that people tend to choose their best moments to display on Facebook, Snapchat, or Instagram, and in reality this does not represent anyone as a whole.

Someone could easily take hundreds of photos on a trip and only post two or three, while discarding the rest as being ‘bad’ or not representative of their better times. Meanwhile, those looking on from the other side of the fence could easily assume that that person is having the time of their life, and compare their current social status to this ‘perfect’ snapshot.

Whether it be comparing yourselves to your friends vacationing in Thailand, or going to a Coldplay concert, or looking at celebrity lives on the media, we have to remember that these moments only represent a smaller (to very small) portion of their lives.

As noted in a Bustle article, the same scenario can play off in a group setting as well.

“…even when we ourselves are out being social and composing our own envy-inducing Snapchat Stories, a group setting tends to trigger these same pessimistic biases. Being in a group forces us to consider other people’s inner lives more deeply and thoughtfully than we might if we were alone. In that process of imagining what other people’s inner lives are like, we often tell ourselves a story that they must be great, far better than our own.”

Getting trapped in this constant state of comparison could have a significant impact on our mental well-being, and for some, even on our physical health.

Can we avoid it?

Unless you choose to avoid reading the social columns and going “cold turkey” on your social media accounts, the only real way to minimize this type of behaviour would be to filter out those who live “extremely” social lives. It might mean unfollowing a few friends and celebrities from your social media feeds, or simply limiting the amount of time you spend on social media in general.

There is even a new Facebook feature that allows you to temporarily unfollow someone to hide those one-off bursts of photos after a major event like a wedding, vacation, or new pet or baby.

We can also take solace in the fact that everyone suffers from this same complex to some extent, and we simply need to take a step back when we find ourselves in a very comparative mode.

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