For some people, it's a loaf of bread. For others, it's a screenshotted Zoom call. Since governments around the globe implemented lockdown measures to tackle the COVID-19 crisis in March, our social lives — and our social media posts — have changed significantly. Instagram Stories that were once full of restaurants, weddings, bars and birthdays are now filled with baked goods, balconies and video chats. Yet seeing these posts can ignite a feeling that many naïvely assumed would be shut down alongside the rest of the world: FOMO.
An acronym for "fear of missing out," FOMO is defined by academics as "a pervasive apprehension that others might be having rewarding experiences from which one is absent." For many people, this manifests as discomfort, anxiety and sadness triggered by social media posts. You get FOMO when you see a Snapchat of friends at the bar without you, or an Instagrammed #brunch that clashed with the dentist in your diary. So how on earth is it possible to feel FOMO when no one is meeting up or going out? And is it wrong to feel this way when we all have far more important things to worry about?
"It feels dumb having FOMO at this time," says Angelica, a 29-year-old TV production worker in LA, "Instagram Stories will be the death of me." Though she wishes she could ignore the feeling, Angelica says her FOMO is exacerbated by her depression, and her lockdown loneliness has triggered panic attacks. "I know we're all going through this together. We're in isolation and social distancing together, we're all feeling anxious and missing our friends — but I still can't help but feel incredibly alone."
Angelica's FOMO was first prompted by screenshots of other people's video calls, which she says made her feel jealous and lonely. She has also experienced FOMO when seeing friends post about others bringing them flowers, cakes and books while in isolation. When asked how the feeling compares to FOMO she has felt in the past, she says: "It's so much fucking worse."
This is a sentiment shared by Aspen, a 24-year-old trainee at the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. Aspen says that while regular FOMO is short-lived ("Oh, I missed out this weekend, I'll just go out next weekend"), lockdown FOMO is constant. "I live with my parents, but most of my friends share an apartment," she explains. Because her friends are roommates (and none of them are sick), they are still able to cook together, play video games, drink and generally just hang out. "It's like they are solidifying their bond and I'm isolated from that," Aspen says.
Yet even if you live with friends, you can still experience lockdown FOMO — something 21-year-old Meg, a student from Portland, has recently discovered. Meg has five roommates who all have different school schedules, meaning she often has to do homework when her friends are hanging out. Her roommates also enjoy scary movies while she doesn't, so she occasionally overhears them together when she's in her room. Yet Meg says this FOMO has prompted positive change, too — to tackle it, she's organized karaoke sessions, dance parties, and an Easter brunch with her roommates.
Meg admits that her FOMO isn't especially severe because she has the benefit of living with friends, yet lockdown FOMO isn't just triggered by relationships. Some people are also experiencing "productivity FOMO" — they feel guilty, remorseful, and sad when they see others create art, bake banana bread, or start a new fitness regime.
"It seems like everyone on social media is either learning a new skill, starting a hobby, or fixing up their house," says Aspen, the environment worker. "I'm not doing any of that. I'm using this time to survive, and I'm barely doing that." Aspen says she spends most of her time "either working or worrying" and feels jealous and confused about the amount of energy others seem to have. "It makes me feel like I'm missing out on a collective experience of increased productivity and kind of makes me feel like something is wrong with me."
Thankfully, people are already criticising the idea that a global pandemic is the perfect time for increased productivity (the New Yorker even published a piece entitled "The Truth About Isaac Newton's Productive Plague".) Many people are now using social media to encourage one another to relax — one tweet with over 3,000 likes reads, "you do not have to be productive while dealing with a bloody pandemic sometimes it's okay to step back and do something for yourself." Yet unfortunately, social media is still the root of most FOMO — Angelica and Aspen both say Twitter and Instagram posts provoke jealousy and sadness. Some social media services even seem designed to create FOMO — the video chat app Houseparty notifies users when friends are online, and even lists the people who are currently chatting to each other.
Jessica — an 18-year-old student from Florida whose name has been changed — knows how it feels to be left out of a video call. After lockdown, her friends set up a Zoom to celebrate a mutual friend's birthday, but Jessica was never given the code to enter the virtual room. She assumed the party had been cancelled — until she later saw screenshots on Snapchat.
"In many ways, this feeling is worse than regular FOMO," she says. "Since I'm stuck inside, I have too much time to just think about it. I have very few distractions and can't help but zero in on how left out I feel. I also need the social interaction more than ever so to not get it is even worse."
Yet despite the undeniably painful nature of this experience, Jessica still feels guilty for feeling FOMO during a global pandemic. "I feel bad for getting upset over something so little when there are obviously worse things going on in the world," she says, "I also realise I should be easier on myself, but that doesn't always stop me from feeling the way I do."
Dr Aaron Balick is a psychotherapist and author of The Psychodynamics of Social Networking who runs Stillpoint Spaces, an international community for people interested in psychology. Balick explains that it is not unusual to feel FOMO even when no one is going out. "The psychological experience of missing out is not at all dependent on where that missing out happens, for example if it is virtual or face to face," he explains, "It is human nature to wish to be part of a group."
Balick also says we shouldn't feel guilty for feeling FOMO during a pandemic, as social interaction is now more necessary than ever. "During social isolation the need to be included and feel belonging in a group is increased," he explains. "With people more dependent on social media for social interaction, it may be that feelings of FOMO are currently increasing rather than decreasing – even if one is missing out on a virtual event."
But even though lockdown FOMO isn't unusual, it is still unpleasant. How do we stop feeling this way? TV worker Angelica believes that planning a Zoom should be easier than planning to meet up in real life, but has been frustrated by how difficult it is to get friends' schedules to line up. Meanwhile, after seeing banana bread after banana bread on her Instagram Explore page, Aspen tried her hand at it and found herself disappointed. "It didn't make me happy or relaxed," she says. "It did the opposite, I almost had a breakdown because I mixed the wet ingredients before the dry ingredients and I thought I ruined the whole thing."
Succumbing to the banana bread siren may not be the answer, but Balick says "increasing complex social interaction" is. What this means is that you should avoid too much passive scrolling on social media if it causes negative feelings, and instead prioritise proper, personal interactions with people (so instead of being jealous of your friend's new workout, message them about it, or ask to join in.) "Now more than ever individuals should be making judgements about the quality of the social interactions they are having," Balick advises. "Passive social media scrolling without engagement should be avoided if you are feeling anxious, lonely, and excluded."