The psy­cho­log­i­cal im­pact

Friday - - Society Living Leisure -

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

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