Month: October 2015

FoMO and the “wished for” life


I have been thinking recently about the nature of FoMO and its relationship to frustration.

At the heart of it, frustration lies between what we have and what we don’t have; between the life we are living and the life we want to live. There is a dissonance between our real world and our imagined worlds and I am wondering whether it is possible that it is this discrepancy which causes the negative consequences which we have discovered in our research (

In this modern, digitized world it seems that we are constantly stalked by potential, choices and options for a better life; the possibilities are endless and our perfect self is just a tap or a swipe away. But, as is more often the case, our actual life gets in the way and we are frustrated. Social media, and particularly Facebook, displays in living colour, an illusion of the possible, what we need to satisfy the incongruity and what would undoubtedly give us pleasure. Somewhere, right in our hands or on our computer, there is a potential life where our needs are being met, where our “wished for” life is playing out.

FoMO, by definition, is a feeling of apprehension one feels when one sees, on social media, that others are enjoying an experience from which one is absent. Could it be that these experiences are the unmet needs of our “wished for” life and that this absence is what produces the range of emotions, the jealousy, the judgement, the disconnection which we have uncovered?

On the other hand, isn’t our “wished for” life important? Does it not inform the life we live? Without it, where would ambition, determination, hope and courage spring from? It is in the mire of the discord between the actual and the imagined that we see beauty, that we recognise potential and that we prepare for action. Frustration at not living our “wished for” life, whether it arises externally (our social world or the environment) or internally (our personal deficiencies), shows us what we want, what will give us pleasure; this frustration can be inspirational.

Facebook and the Fear of Missing Out

Within the last decade, social networking sites have become increasingly important tools for social interaction and communication between people. These platforms allow us to create semi-public or public profiles and to observe and examine inventories of online relationships made by ourselves and others. With experience and time, the perception of Facebook and other social networking sites as accepted forms of communication is becoming less foreign to us and we now communicate seamlessly, frequently, and with various levels of awareness of the impact upon us and those we are connected with. The new generation of technology users are entering into an intimate relationship with these, as yet, immature and evolving technologies. As online social networking becomes more prevalent, we provide more and more access to the details of our lives and, without fully understanding the consequences, we allow social media and a virtual network of “friends” influence over our experience and behaviour.

Lately, an acronym emerging from online communications is becoming more and more commonplace: “FoMO” (fear of missing out), a previously humorous urban slang word, is being used in everyday conversation; companies are recognising the importance of FoMO for their marketing strategy; opinion pieces on the phenomenon appear in newspapers and magazines around the world, and in August 2013 the Oxford English Dictionary even proposed a definition of FoMO. FoMO, we are told, involves “Anxiety that an exciting or interesting event may currently be happening elsewhere, often aroused by posts seen on a social media website”. Essays and blog posts on Psychology Today and PsychCentral websites feature opinions on FoMO, suggesting a growing academic interest in the concept. However, there has been very little substantive research that has focused directly on FoMO.

FoMO, arising from the immediacy and ubiquity of social media, is perceived as having mainly negative outcomes. However, to date, only one study has focussed directly on efforts to measure FoMO and its consequences. Przybylski and colleagues (2013) defined FoMO as: “a pervasive apprehension that others might be having rewarding experiences from which one is absent…the desire to stay continually connected to what others are doing”.  The study reported that young people, particularly young males, exhibited high levels of FoMO.  Notably, those who reported high levels of FoMO also scored low on satisfaction of basic psychological needs (autonomy, competence and relatedness).  High levels of FoMO were also associated with lower levels of life satisfaction and positive mood; and those who scored high in FoMO were more likely to use social media immediately before sleep, upon waking, and during both meal times and their university lectures.

One major problem with both the Oxford Dictionary definition of FoMO and the measure of FoMO developed by Przybylski and colleagues is that the definition and understanding of FoMO is not grounded directly in the views of technology users. We’ve started to adopt a new approach to construct definition and scale development in psychology, specifically, by engaging directly with stakeholders and using collective intelligence methods to ground our understanding of key phenomena.  In our research, we were interested in exploring the possible negative consequences of social media use, and how these negative consequences related to each other in the context of FoMO. To investigate this, we carried out four collective intelligence sessions with a total of 76 Irish University students, using Interactive Management, a systems thinking approach to collective intelligence. Participants in each of the four groups were presented with a short description of FoMO and were asked the following question: “What are the negative consequences of FoMO?” After a period of idea generation, clarification, and voting, the top ranked negative consequences of FoMO were highlighted. Across the four collective intelligence sessions, in excess of 80 distinct consequences of FoMO were selected via voting. Some of the negative consequences of FoMO reported by our participants included: Increased feelings of being singled out; Increased dishonesty in the portrayal of one’s self-image; Increased feelings of personal inadequacy; Increased feelings of loneliness; Increased unfair judgements of others; Increased dissatisfaction with one’s life; Increased detachment from family and friends; and Increased jealousy in relation to the lives of others.

In the next stage of their collective intelligence work, students discussed the possible interdependencies between these negative consequences, using our matrix-structuring, model-building software.  Questions were presented in the following format: Does negative consequence A significantly aggravate negative consequence B?  Through a process of facilitated dialogue and reasoning and with the assistance of the software, each group generated a problematique, or a structural model, of the interdependencies (see Fig.1 for an example). The structural model is to be read from left to right, with relational lines indicating ‘significantly aggravates’.

Cormac Ryan, Owen Harney, Michael Hogan
Source: Cormac Ryan, Owen Harney, Michael Hogan

Figure 1. Structural Model of FoMO consequences

For the participants in this Interactive Management session, “Increased dissatisfaction with one’s life” and a “Decrease in Privacy” emerge as the primary negative consequences of FoMO. Both of these negative consequences directly and significantly aggravate a “Poorer self-image” at the second stage of the structural model and also a “Decrease in concentration“, at the fourth stage. Further, the primary negative consequence, “Increased dissatisfaction with one’s life”, significantly aggravates an “Increase in the dishonesty in the portrayal of one’s self-image”. “Poorer self-image” significantly aggravates “Feelings of jealousy in relation to the lives of others”, which in turn aggravates “Unfair judgements of others”. Furthermore, at the third level of the structural model, “Increased tendency to neglect basic needs” significantly aggravates “Decrease in concentration”.

Following data collection and the interpretation of the structural models, using meta-analysis across all four sessions, we identified a number of high level themes or categories of FoMO consequences. Key themes in relation to the negative consequences of FoMO included:  Pressure, Paranoia, Separation, Self-identity problems, Dissatisfaction, Loneliness, Negative Self-Image, Personal Inadequacy, Disconnection, Jealousy, and Judgement. The negative consequences within the Judgement category received the highest number of votes across the four group, with 42 votes cast in this category (see Fig.2).

Cormac Ryan, Owen Harney, Michael Hogan
Source: Cormac Ryan, Owen Harney, Michael Hogan

Figure 2. The consequences of FoMO.  Note: Numbers in parenthesis in thematic category headings indicate number of votes received by the category


With 1.49 billion users, Facebook is the most popular social networking site in the world. In a recent survey conducted by Thinkhouse, it was found that 35% of all Facebook users in Ireland are under the age of 25, with 98% of them using the application on their smartphones; 90% check their phone “when they wake up”, 87% “on public transport” and 84% “while watching T.V.” (Thinkhouse, 2014). The new wave of social networking on Facebook, has been described as “a great uncontrolled experiment on kids” (Shifrin, 2011). The psychological impact of Facebook use, and FoMO, is slowly revealing itself.   Our study is the first to use Interactive Management to explore the interdependencies between negative consequences of FoMO identified as significant by Facebook users. Considering the logic of our four collective intelligence groups, it appears that Facebook usage can have a variety of negative consequences and, importantly, these outcomes are related to one another in a system of negative consequences. Notably, a decrease in personal privacy, increased detachment from friends and family, increased feelings of loneliness, and dissatisfaction with one’s life, are all fundamental drivers of other negative consequences of FoMO. These negative consequences are, in turn, related to and significantly aggravate increased unfair judgements of others, change in personality, paranoia, jealousy and decreases in concentration.

Given the range and pervasiveness of the negative psychological consequences that users are reporting in our study, one must wonder whether the designers of Facebook would have rolled out the platform in its current design format if psychologist had been included in the original design team?  Had the developers used a scenario-based design approach to development, mapping user goals and experiences in an iterative, interactive design process and importing psychological science to inform key design decisions, the Facebook we know today would look very different. Ultimately, from a scenario-based design perspective, there is a system of negative influence resulting from Facebook usage that needs to be considered as part of the design of future social networking sites.  The question is, how do we overcome these negative consequences in the design of software solutions in the future?  Our belief is that technologists need to slow down in their rush to develop the ‘next big thing’ and consider the impact of their creations on user experience and the social-emotional development of the global population.

Ryan, C., Harney, O., & Hogan, M.

Paper never refused ink

“Digital dependence ‘eroding human memory'” (

“Digital amnesia on the rise as we outsource our memory to the web” (

“Digital amnesia leaves us vulnerable” (

Over the last few days, a number of news websites and news organisations around the world have run a story about a piece of research conducted by Kaspersky Lab. The study, pithily entitled “The rise and impact of digital amnesia: Why we need to protect what we no longer remember”, seems to have received widespread support from these organisations, in that the results have been published without any of the journalists questioning the methodology used in the study or for that matter the results themselves. Terrifyingly, the study states that “Connected devices enrich our lives but they have also given rise to the potentially risky phenomenon of digital amnesia…increasingly relying on devices to store information as our memory leaves us immensely vulnerable should the device be lost or stolen or the data compromised — particularly if we are out and about.”

I don’t know about you, but my risky behaviour as left me feeling “immensely vulnerable”, right now and I’m afraid to go “out and about”. I might just close the curtains…..

As Jennifer Aniston would say, “Here’s the science bit”: The researchers surveyed 6,000 male and female consumers, aged between 16 and 55+, with 1,000 from each of the UK, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Benelux . The survey was undertaken online in February/March 2015.

That sounds like a fairly powerful study and given the number of people involved, the results should be very believable.

The only problem is that the participants in the study were only asked if they could recall phone numbers and it turned out that across Europe, up to 60% of adults could phone the house they lived in aged 10; but not their children (53%), or the office (51%) without first looking up the number. Around a third couldn’t call their partners.

Thankfully, Kaspersky Lab (short for “laboratory”….science-ey), a cyber-security firm, “is committed to helping people understand the risks their data could be exposed to and empowering them to tackle those risks”. Phew!

Memory is not only incredibly complex, but it has a limited capacity; we forget things that we don’t need to remember in order to remember things that we do. The fantastically named researchers Storm & Stone, examined if saving information to a device would effect the ability to learn and remember new information. Results showed that saving one file before studying a new file significantly improved memory for the contents of the new file. The authors suggest that “saving” provides people with the ability to dump memory onto the environment in order to reduce the interference it might cause to new learning and storing new information. Without going into more research and looking at these findings, would it not be as easy to say “Incredibly efficient human system dumps useless information” or “Human memory capacities enhanced by mobile devices”?

Digital Dependence?

imageWe live in a digital age. Whether it’s with the newest Smartphone or the latest laptop, technology and communicating with that technology are an all-pervading feature of life, particularly for young people. It seems that using communications technology and communication through social networking has become as acceptable as communicating face-to-face. In fact, young people have become so used to interacting with each other using social media, that this form of communication has become legitimate and indeed, vital.
In a recent survey conducted by Thinkhouse, it was found that 96% of Irish 15-35 year olds owned their own smartphone. Of that group, 98% used Facebook on those devices, with 90% checking their phone “when they wake up”, 87% checking in “on public transport” and 84% “while watching T.V. A majority of respondents (57%) to the survey even went so far as to say that they were more likely to check their phone “on the loo” than while on a date.
In July 2012, the IACP released a statement regarding social media addiction. The press release, quoting a “leading Irish counsellor”, warned of the dangers of social media addiction. The release likened the addiction to that of alcohol and tobacco; it claimed that relationships, jobs and studies would be adversely effected; that by giving into the urges to use social media, users were likely to be depressed and to suffer from low self-esteem (IACP, 2012). This press release, based on the finding of one study, was published with the headline “Does someone need to open a social media rehab?” on one popular website, Further, the Addiction Counsellors of Ireland warn, without providing evidence, that internet addiction can cause anxiety and sexual addiction (Addiction Counsellors of Ireland, 2014).
In July 2014, The Irish Independent published an article claiming that social media and particularly the insatiable desire for connection (often referred to as FoMO – Fear of missing out) “is having an adverse effect on our mental health” (Whelan, 2014). This article, entitled “How social media is hitting our mental health”, goes on to state that social media usage can exacerbate pre-existing mental health problems and the author foresees a time when web services will have to carry a health warning. These alarming warnings seem to be based on a number of assumptions; that the online world is a dangerous place; that resultant outcomes, which manifest in the digital environment, are caused by that environment and that specialised solutions are required.
Social networks and constant high speed communication provide many benefits, allowing young users to feel connected and socially involved. Though the benefits of these technologies (almost instant communication, security, self awareness, self presentation, autonomy, mastery, competence etc) are many, there are consequences to living in the digital age which we are still coming to terms with.
That said, in their most recent Annual Review of Research, Livingstone & Smith (2014) point out that serious and repetitive online bullying occurs to 5% of young people, less than in face-to-face interactions. Further, they find that the majority of young people are not viewing pornography, with fewer still sending explicit sexual messages and images. Furthermore, only a small subset of the 2% of young people who “may” receive sexual solicitations are victimised. Additionally, the authors state that the digital world is no more dangerous than the actual world which young people inhabit. fb
Perhaps the problems posed by technology are merely a reflection of normal social interactions and that, rather than focusing research and resources on internet safety, efforts should be targeted on what excites and enthuses young people about technology and what benefits they derive from platforms like Facebook. Conceivably, more holistic, emotional intelligence and media training would be more appropriate than issuing sensationalist, often groundless warnings.