The psychological impact
like getting to school the Monday after everyone else in your class went to a great party, “which you didn’t even know about, and definitely weren’t invited to. It’s like that. But all the time”.
The term began gaining traction online two years ago. FOMO secured urban dictionary mentions in 2011 and made the Oxford English Dictionary in August this year. This suggests it’s now reached critical mass – and it certainly feels as if that might be the case, doesn’t it? FOMO is the reason you’ve found yourself wondering if not knowing precisely who Miley Cyrus is means you’re irredeemably out of the loop. It’s why you think you really must start watching Breaking Bad – not because you want to, but because everyone else went crazy when the final episode aired in September. FOMO explains the recurring urge to upgrade your smartphone, even if your existing one is working perfectly well.
It is particularly prevalent among people in their 20s such as Hannah, Jo and Daisy – digital natives; the generation who can’t really remember a time before the internet and who grew up with Facebook and Twitter. “They’re no different from us,” says Dan. “They are just more connected.”
Baroness Susan Greenfield, a scientist and academic who specialises in the physiology of the brain and the impact of 21st-century technology on the mind, isn’t so sure. “It is harder for younger people. Older people have a network of real [offline] friends, a relationship with the threedimensional world, and so are better able to contextualise their experience of the cyber world. Older people know they have an alternative; I don’t think younger people feel that they do.”
The young person’s FOMO comes in many forms. “Well, it’s probably mainly professional,” says Jo. “Like, ‘so and so’s got a better job than me’.”
“Or it’s about money,” adds Hannah. “I see so many people [on Instagram or Facebook] off somewhere, doing something, and I think, how can you afford that?”
“Or it’s because you feel excluded or ignored,” Imogen, a 30-year-old solicitor tells me. “If you’ve tweeted someone and they aren’t replying, but you can see that they’re active on other sites, talking to other people…”
“Or if you tweet something and no one retweets it, or you post a picture on Instagram and no one ‘likes’ it, and then – cringe – you think they’re all thinking: ‘Why did she do that?”’ adds Daisy, who admits to sometimes “sympathy ‘liking’ someone’s rubbish Instagram shot, because I think they might do the same to me in the future as a favour”.
“Or it’s about relationships,” says Jo. “Because there’s this idea that you can be anything you want and no one’s ever good enough for you... Same with jobs. Same with everything. That pressure of, ‘You can be anything you want.’”
“Except, you can’t,” says Hannah. For the young generation, FOMO can How damaging is FOMO, really? Susan argues that the psychological ramifications are significant. “This drive to be constantly entertaining, to develop an artificial persona, to live this externally constructed life... You end up not with friends, but with an audience,” she says.
And presumably with an egocentric world view? “Yes. And there’s a lot of evidence that enhanced narcissism and low selfesteem go hand in hand. If you’re looking for constant feedback, for constant approval, on this version of yourself you’re constantly updating online... Children need that sort of validation, but part of what defines us as adults is that we outgrow it, become more robust, so that we can withstand the slings and arrows.”
The non-stop pursuit of ‘likes’ – the blue thumbs-up symbol with which online friends demonstrate approval of a new post – robs the Facebook generation of their opportunity to develop those sorts of defences. It also makes them uniquely inclined to focus on how their lives are viewed by other people, to the detriment of real, first-hand experience.
For example, a friend shows me a series of pictures posted on her 14-year-old sister’s Facebook page. They purport to show the sister and her group of friends getting ready for a big night out. “They do their hair and make-up, and try on outfits while posing for these pictures, which they post on Facebook.
“But the thing is, they’re not actually going out. They have no intention of going out. They have nowhere to go. They’re too young, they haven’t been invited to any parties... They are going through the process of getting ready for a fake night out.” What’s the goal? I ask. “‘Likes’. One of the girls told me she’s not happy unless she gets at least 80 ‘likes’ on a picture.”
And yet, before you clutch at your pearls, disconnect your children from the internet and congratulate yourself on being too old for FOMO, are you completely untouched?
According to recent statistics, the average adult now spends one in every 12 waking minutes online; one in four of us spends more time on the internet than we do asleep.
I speak as someone who wasted too much of my most recent summer