This is your brain on FOMO.

On Fear of Missing Out Addiction.

First Published August 29, 2013

FOMO, or Fear Of Missing Out, has to be the most insufferable of the first-world syndromes to transform my generation from hopeful, ambitious innovators into a huddled clump of simpering drones, desperately clenching their smartphones, refreshing and checking notifications for their next hit of derpamine. And I’m one of them.
(and Yes. I just officially
made up a word.)

FOMO is a psychologically compulsive concern that one might miss an opportunity for social interaction, a novel experience or other satisfying event. This is especially associated with modern technologies like smartphones and social networking services.

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Photo © Copyright Jason Chatfield

A study by some smart guy called Andrew Przybylski found the condition was most common in those who had unsatisfied psychological needs such as wanting to be loved and respected. So, most of us.

In a society where we’re bombarded with advertising imagery to make sure we’re all super-insecure, it’s the perfect storm for a FOMO epidemic. Get your tinfoil helmets ready, kids!

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Illustration: © 2013 Jason Chatfield

I can’t remember the last time I went out with friends and we didn’t all have to compete for each others’ attention. We’re instantly pitted against the un-winnable battle of a universe of other non-present people who are potentially more interesting. Sometimes it literally takes playing the phone stack game to get us to engage like adult humans.

I’m the guiltiest of my friends of this heinous social disease. I’ve done it for a long time.

Ever since Facebook and Twitter became available on a handheld device, I was that guy checking it for updates. Checking out of wherever I was to be somewhere else. A scorching case of FOMO not seen by the likes of any other early adopters.

Such was the severity, my friends just started excluding me from conversations. What was the point? I was just going to stop halfway through and check my phone anyway right? I am also a dork. And who wants to talk to a dork? (Except the Lord)

Trying to hold a conversation with me while I was holding my smartphone was like trying to read bedtime stories to a hyena ripping into a squealing zebra. The amount of patience required not to punch me in the face couldn’t be quantified. The lack of restraint on my part was unfathomably rude.

Nomophobia (which is a thing, sadly) is the chronic, crippling fear of being out of mobile phone contact. Add a hefty dose of FOMO into that equation and you’ve got yourself a serious social problem infecting an entire generation.

This all may sound like I’m being harsh on a seemingly harmless social faux pas, but as I’ve written before in 2010, social media exists on the very requirement of you obsessively needing to check back in and obsessively tap that little red circle to see how many people Liked or commented on your genius photo of a duck wearing a hat.

There are two parts to this:

1.) By Design

Social media sites know exactly what they’re doing. Peoples’ addiction to them is no accident. Facebook has been redesigned more times than Tori Spelling’s chin, but there’s one thing on the user interface that has never changed- that’s the little red circle with a number in it, hovering over a small light blue globe. The small indicator of how many notifications are sitting there, waiting for you to check. There’s a reason they haven’t changed it too — the human brain.

The way the human brain forms habits and addictions based on patterns, and more specifically, through triggers. Triggers are really powerful things. You can use them to your advantage if you want to hack your brain, but if you let them run your subconscious it’s a one-way trip to the above mentioned simpering mess of FOMOsexual.
(I don’t know what the sexual part is. Let’s not think about it. But I will gift you my new favourite word: Infornography. You’re welcome.)

2.) The Greatest Hits.

FOMO is mainly associated with Facebook and Instagram, which provide constant opportunity for comparison of one’s status.

Oddly enough, the majority of people on Facebook and Instagram don’t tend to post photos or check-in when they’re doing nothing. They tend to image craft; posting photos of themselves doing fun things, out with friends, eating great food or having heaps of fun at a bar. With Facebook, you’re getting everyone’s Best Of album. Their Greatest Hits. Epic FOMO bait.

What’s the solution, dork?

Solar flare? Wipe out the internet? FOMOs Anonymous?

The first step is stopping the trigger. The next, ideally, is a digital diet to reset your triggers.

I tried a little experiment would recommend you try if you have FOMO issues. I wanted to see if I could extricate myself from the lure of the little red dot for as long as I could. I would see how high I could get that little number before I felt the need to click it. The result? I’m four days in and I’m recognising the desire to click it every time it pops up, but guess what. I haven’t been socially excluded/missed out on anything/died. I am, however, still a dork.

The first part of breaking an addiction is recognising the problem. Then identifying the trigger.

(This is super easy if your addiction is guns.) I’ve still been logging on every now and then, checking on the events panel. I’m still responding to friend requests and DMs, but I haven’t clicked the notification button. It’s up to about 104. The idea that this is somehow heroic strikes me as more and more ridiculous as each day goes on.

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The link between seeing the red dot, and needing to click/extinguish it is diluting and my brain’s circuitry is rerouting my attention to other things.

I use an app called for Mac to blacklist and other tempting servers from access on my laptop, effectively blocking social media from my ‘work’ computer altogether. The spike in productivity is astounding. (and sad, really.)

Not to over-simplify neuroscience, but basically the habit-forming pattern is trigger > action > pleasurable response. (Rinse, repeat.) The more you do it, the stronger the habit/addiction becomes (the stronger the neural pathways become). The more reliant on the dopamine drip you get from that pleasurable response, the less control you have over that addiction. It gets a lot more complicated, but them’s the basics.

The interesting thing is once you’ve clicked on the red dot, the pleasure disappears. The idea of having the red indicator with numbers in it ready to click is more pleasurable than the seconds after you’ve clicked it. It’s the same principle of the study of why window shopping is so pleasurable; The desire to buy a thing is more pleasurable than having spent your money and bought the thing.

That’s the scientific reason people buy things they don’t need or can’t afford. The reason people feel like they need the new iPhone. The excitement of the experience of owning it is far greater before you purchase it than after you purchase it. There’s a reason you can’t walk into an Apple store without feeling excited about potentially walking out with one of those shiny new gadgets. It’s experiential marketing, and they’re very good at it.(They also use knolling… KNOLLING!)

There’s a bunch more scientific research as to how Facebook makes you jealous and sad in the New York Times seemingly rehashed the same time each year.

Without getting too far off track, the basic principle of overcoming FOMO and information addiction is

..Sorry I just got distracted by an article about Bees.

What was I saying?


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My friend here in Melbourne, Gavin Aung Than has done a great comic based on Marc Maron’s bit about this. It’s excellent. Click the image to view the whole thing.

Interested in reading more about this stuff? Take a look at the neuroscience (new research) behind What Happens In Your Brain When People Like Your Facebook Status.

Update, 29th November 2017:

Facebook just changed the notification icon from the little round globe to a bell. This is a bold move…

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Written by

🇦🇺 NYC Cartoonist/Writer for @NewYorker and stand-up comic. Syndicated daily in 34 countries. President of The National Cartoonists Society. #BlockedByTrump

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