Researchers talk about our attachment to social media in terms of the fear of missing out (FOMO). We can't look away from our mobile devices because we might miss the possibility to make or enhance a connection. After all, one of the benefits to having a large social network is the access to social support. So if we don't comment in time on someone's status to commiserate, console, or congratulate, or we don't see that pin that tells us someone is planning a nursery, how do we participate in their lives and affirm that we belong to their network? What if we miss an opportunity to meet up with friends who are going to be in our neighborhood or our colleagues think we aren't working because we don't reply immediately?

FOMO is a product of always being connected; it also reflects our struggle to attribute value to social connections both online and offline. We're juggling the perceived demand to always be accessible. But we're also dealing with the information we consume. Seeing someone's vacation photos or concert photos, or job, engagement or pregnancy announcement can cause the viewer to question his or her own current status in life. Social networks are amazing at establishing the normative social expectations within our social groups from buying a house, taking a vacation, running a marathon, or volunteering. Whether we want to admit it or not, we judge ourselves by the company we keep. Our social connections become a measure of our own success. And this is the other aspect of FOMO: if we aren't plugged in, how do we gauge our own milestones? The fear of missing out is strengthened in the comparisons we make to others.

But not every experience shared on social media is a good one. A flat tire, a missed flight, a rocky relationship—some people share all of this and more on social media. What's the impact of the perceived negative things that people share? Do we also experience a joy in missing out?

The "always on" aspect of online behavior seems ripe to trigger a variety of anxieties, but research from the Pew Internet Center finds no direct relationship to stress tied to the frequent use of social media. In fact, for women, active social media use is actually tied to slightly lower levels of stress. Social media may provide an immediate outlet to vent and provide support to others that may help balance social demands. The research does find that social media participation makes users more aware of the stresses that other people are experiencing. For example within the previous twelve months:

  • 57% of adults said they know someone who had started a new job

  • 56% know someone who had moved or changed homes
  • 54% know someone who had become pregnant, given birth, or adopted a child
  • 50% knew someone who had been hospitalized or experienced a serious accident or injury
  • 50% knew someone who had become engaged or married
  • 42% knew someone who had been fired or laid off
  • 36% knew someone who had experienced the death of a child, partner, or spouse
  • 36% knew someone who had a child move out of the house or move back into the house
  • 31% knew someone who had gone through a marital separation or divorce
  • 26% knew someone who had experienced a demotion or pay cut at work
  • 22% knew someone who had been accused of or arrested for a crime
  • 22% knew someone who had been the victim of a robbery or physical assault

Given the breadth of online connections people have respondents were able to identify at least an acquaintance who had experienced once of the above events. This is important because the degree of closeness the user had to the sharer was an indicator as to whether the user would share in their friend's stress. On average, women indicated higher levels of stress when someone close to them experienced the death of a child, partner or spouse; when someone close to them was hospitalized or experienced a serious injury; when an acquaintance was accused or arrested for a crime; or when an acquaintance experienced a demotion or job loss. For men, stress was higher when someone close to them had been arrested or accused of a crime or an acquaintance experienced a demotion or job loss.

When an acquaintance reported the death of a loved one, women reported lower levels of stress. While the research didn't delve into the psychological reasons why this might be the case, it suggested that they may have experienced relief that this event didn't happen to someone they were close to. This doesn't seem to be the same as taking pleasure in someone's misfortune, but relief that the event wasn't happening to someone close to them whom they might have to support (emotionally or otherwise). The exception seems to be job loss or demotion—and given the current economy, it may be that seeing these events is reminder of widespread this event is and contributes to a greater sense of uncertainty, triggering greater feelings of stress.

The comparisons we engage in online can therefore be twofold. We've focused mainly on how seeing the accomplishments of others can make us feel—the pressure to keep up with the proverbial Joneses, the sense that everyone is hitting the typically accepted life milestones—but we aren't really talking about how other's downfalls may make us feel. And there's some pressure to keep "private business" off of social media but as these are channels for sharing and where people can find support, it can be hard to avoid altogether. The fear of missing out might then just leave us grateful for what we are missing in our lives.


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