The Silent Epidemic of Feeling Left Out

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Recently over dinner, a few of my friends finally managed to get together for our long-awaited catch-up. You know that feeling: phone tags, missed IMs, buried emails. Somehow, hectic schedules and personal commitments always seem out of sync and, week after week, you take a raincheck on “let’s grab lunch sometime”. But for Millennials (A.K.A. Generation Plugged-In), what’s perhaps most attractive about technological integration is that it allows us to keep track of one another — without ever being in sync. Enter: FOMO, or “Fear Of Missing Out”.

Although not a psychiatric or widely-recognized condition at this point, the social epidemic looming over our bright screens as we post photos and update statuses is already eating the population away. The New York Times, Mashable, Sherry Turkle, and a number of experts have acknowledged and written about it.

Our constant obsession to publicly broadcast our minute-by-minute lives can be overwhelming. Don’t be mistaken, social media and technology have their definite upsides. Communication couldn’t come more effortlessly, especially for those with location and time constraints. But then again, if we only ever have time for our friends when they’re online, what does that say about our relationships?

Believe it or not, the bigger downsides can be a greater disconnect and potential unhappiness in one’s social life.

The tremendous influence these different technologies has over us is, quite frankly, frightening. Whether you’re at happy hour or watching a movie at home, it’s that feeling you get that you’re losing out on some social connection. It’s the possibility that something might happen and you’d miss out; maybe it’s colleagues at a party or your roommate’s new job announcement. Whatever it is, we find it hard to resist pulling out cellphones in the middle of conversations or jumping on Facebook while waiting in line to find out. We start developing a fear that something better might be more deserving of our attention.

Instant gratification provided by plugging in to various technologies makes chiming in even more accessible and appealing. At times, being in the know even disillusions us into thinking that we’re vicariously having a great time.

FOMO can work both ways, and it takes one to know one. If you’re not on the sidelines monitoring every move in your circle, you’re on top of pushing your content. Showing off meals, hangouts, new pets. Adding your voice to every conversation. We’re beginning to engage in a culture of one-upping one another, comparing what we’re doing versus what we could be doing.

While there’s nothing wrong with being extremely present online, it suggests a deeper insecurity for those unable to combat the effects of FOMO. But maybe it’s not entirely our fault. Hours pass and you realize you’re still hunched over your laptop tweeting about the DNC or replying to endless Facebook threads. If you’ve ever experienced an addictive side to social media, it’s because the sites are especially designed to keep you coming back. Sites and apps have caught on to reward systems where users receive perks or elite statuses for being active members. Whether that’s in retweets, likes, or badges, we love knowing we’re being appreciated.

This fear of being left out, however, is hardly a novel concept. It’s permeated party invitations, newspaper announcements, and yearbook hall-of-fames forever. Now, it merely exists in the form of our electronics, and real-time updates do little to alleviate the anxiousness.

Sometimes, I can’t help but feel like I’ve been born into the wrong generation. I refuse to let social media dictate my life and I value knowing people in reality more than in some virtual abyss, both of which seem to be opposite the direction we’re taking with technological devices. While I’m proud to say I’m FOMO-free, Luddite moments aside, I also believe in technology’s potential to galvanize social change.

The real problem is not our generation or technology, it’s the relationship we have with our devices. It’s not a healthy one if machines start to take from our personal lives rather than support them in a meaningful way. I dread to imagine future generations enslaved to screens and societies driven by FOMO, but I’m also hopeful that we’ll get back on track.

It’s been weeks after our get-together, but shared laughs and entrées remain more vivid memories than the comments our pictures acquired. In the end, what’s important is that I know these conversations and experiences are more enriching than the Internet’s opinion of them. So, let’s not allow anything like FOMO to own the way we live — on or offline. We deserve a balanced lifestyle where we focus on being present and not tormenting ourselves to fabricate a social identity.

About Antoinette Siu

Antoinette is a Communications Associate at WiserEarth. At the University of California, Berkeley, she studied Peace and Conflict Studies with a focus in Human Rights. She hopes to pursue investigative journalism and nonprofit management in the future. In another life, she'd love to travel the world as a food critic or do some CSI. If only we could have it all. Follow her @antoinettesiu
Posted in: Culture, Social Media, Society