FoMO: Addiction or Mental Illness?

By Sonja Bethune, Psy.D.

social media layoutWhat’s ironic is that “social media addiction” is in everyone’s face. It’s not hidden and no one seems to be very ashamed of it. It is a socially acceptable addiction, but the sad thing is that most people aren’t even aware that they are addicted. Think about how many times you reach for your phone in a given day just to check your favorite social media site.

We’ave all become voyeurs if you think about it. You go on Facebook or Twitter just to see what is happening in the lives of others. When a person has a fear of missing out, it also prompts them to post selfies to show others that they are having fun too. Facebook is brilliant with encouraging this never-ending cycle.

As a licensed clinical psychologist, several of my clients mention the effects that social media has had on them, such as making them feel more depressed. They look on their Facebook newsfeed because they start to feel anxious about not knowing what is happening in the daily lives of those they call “friends”. However, when they look at the newsfeed, they start to feel inadequate due to what they see such as pictures of friends having an exciting time together at a social event or on an amazing vacation. But guess what? The disappointment and sadness doesn’t prevent them from going back. This explains the phenomenon associated with FoMO (Fear of Missing Out), nomophobia (fear of no cellular phone access), or disconnection anxiety (each one of these concepts take on a similar meaning) (Tarsha, 2016).

According to Tarsha (2016), FoMO is defined as 

The fears, worries, and anxieties people may have in relation to being in (or out of) touch with the events, experiences, and conversations happening across their extended social circles.

How many people are really affected?

According to Pew Research Center (2017), today around 7 out of 10 Americans use social media to connect with one another, engage with news content, share information and entertain themselves.

The Pew Research Center has been tracking social media use since 2005. Here are the results:

  • In 2005 5% of American Adults used at least one social media platform, by 2011 50% of Americans were using social media platforms and by 2016, 69% of adults engage in social media.
  • Age: 86% are ages 18-29; 80% ages 30-49; 64% ages 50-65; 34% 65+ – This is no surprise that the millennials are using social media more than any other age group.
  • Daily use per platform: 76% Facebook; 51% Instagram; 42% Twitter; 25% Pinterest; 18% LinkedIn

Facebook winning the race

Silhouettes chasing the Facebook logo

Since Facebook is the social media platform that is used most often on a daily basis, it might put things into perspective to know how many people’s lives are affected just by Facebook alone.

The latest update was made in June of this year (2017) from the Facebook Newsroom website in which the following is being reported:

  • 32 billion daily active users
  • 01 billion monthly active users (if Facebook were a country, it would be the largest country in the world)
  • 85% of daily active users are outside the US
  • United States is the leading country of having the most Facebook users coming in at 13%

Social media must be amazing, right?

Imagine the first time you were exposed to social media, whether it was through MySpace, Facebook, or Twitter. What attracted you to social media? What did your friends say about it that made it more inviting? Here are some reasons why most people initially created a social media account:

  • Allowed you to find old friends who you haven’t spoken to in years.
  • Allowed you to connect with family members who you rarely visit because they live clear across the country.
  • Allowed you to stay more connected with your local friends by seeing what they were up to on any given day.
  • Made you feel like you belong to a small community without ever leaving your house.

Well, the longer a person uses their social media account, the more it creates an illusion of feeling connected. Think about individuals who accept friend requests even from strangers. Having a substantial number of “friends” on Facebook, gives them the false sense of popularity and acceptance.

In a study by Rosen and colleagues in 2013, the main question that the researchers wanted answers to was “Is Facebook creating “iDisorders?” You know – like iPhone or iPad, but instead iDisorders. In their study, they tested whether the use of technology-related anxieties would predict clinical symptoms of six personality disorders and three mood disorders. Having more Facebook friends predicted clinical symptoms of Bipolar I Disorder, Narcissistic Personality Disorder and Histrionic Personality Disorder. Also, an interesting find was that the anxiety of not being able to check Facebook is associated with antisocial and narcissistic traits.

Causes of social media depression and anxiety

According to Nick Zagorski (2017), a writer for Psychiatric News, recent studies have shown that social media use is linked to feelings of social isolation, depression, insecurity, jealousy, and a poor self-esteem. However, this begs to question how these negative feelings transpire from just perusing through social media sites?

Here are some real examples of reasons why a person can feel worse by more exposure to social media:

  • Having the illusion that others are more popular due to the number of “friends” or “followers” they have.
  • Seeing pictures of a group of friends that you consider yourself to be close to; however, you weren’t invited.
  • Seeing pictures of happy individuals enjoying their lives, which creates sadness and jealousy because your life doesn’t seem as grand.
  • Lack of “likes” to your post that you found as quite funny or clever, so it ends up being a huge disappointment and decreases your self-esteem.
  • Seeing a love interest with someone else makes you feel depressed and insecure.
  • Seeing political posts that you don’t agree with and realizing it’s by one of your close friends.
  • Feeling like you can never keep up with what everyone else has as far as material items go (i.e. expensive cars, house, designer apparel).
  • Being directly attacked about a message or picture you posted.

Social media platforms, such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, have created a major shift in the way people communicate with others online. If you’ve had a social media account, since you first heard about it, then you can probably attest to the transformation of social media communication styles over the years. It’s not the same as it once was.

Here are different ways that individuals create negative outcomes within social media:

  • It went from communicating happy little one-line messages about your day to posting horrific videos of animals and even people being killed.
  • Communicates thoughts and emotions across the board without much thought of consequence.
  • Says things that they wouldn’t normally say to anyone face-to-face, for example, exhibiting bullying and body-shaming behavior.
  • Posts the amazing things going on in their lives, when truly they are hiding behind emotional pain.
  • Shares their political and religious views as if they think everyone cares to listen.
  • Shares way too much personal information for all eyes to see when the information should be intended for one close friend or trusted family member.
  • Likes to make others jealous by posting pictures of their delicious meals everywhere they eat. We call these people “foodies”.
  • There is the culprit of narcissistic behavior as evidenced by the “selfie”.

Dark side of social media

A hooded anonymous figure in front of a laptop

Social media is causing the prevalence of mental illnesses to rise from beneath the surface, in the form narcissism, voyeurism, paranoia and antisocial tendencies. FoMO could be the initial trigger to inappropriate behaviors that are posted in social media newsfeeds. Some love the shock factor and the more people who react to their post, the more this behavior is reinforced.

Antisocial traits consist of bullying behavior, inability to be remorseful for wrongdoings, inability to show empathy, and a complete disregard for other people’s feelings (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). This is something that has shown itself more on social media lately.

We have seen how individuals are showing antisocial traits. There have been a series of incidents on Facebook Live that depict horrible acts such as violence, self-mutilation, and death.

Mental illness or addiction?

In this article, both mental illness and addiction have been addressed. One might say that FoMO is an element of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder or an anxiety disorder, but then again doesn’t an addict have a difficult time controlling their use of whatever it is that they are addicted to? After all, a substance addict involves anxiety, cravings, withdrawal, and feeling uncomfortable or antsy without access to their substance of choice (Nauert, 2010). One part of being a social media addict is the inability or difficulty to stop checking social media sites throughout the day. In fact, a study was done on college students in which 45% admitted to social media use 6-8 hours a day (Wang, Chen, & Liang, 2011). This seems a bit excessive, right? So, what is the answer to this question? I would say a little bit of both. The addiction causes the symptoms of mental illness.

Now you may be wondering if you are a social media addict. There are several social media addiction quizzes online, but I found one that seemed rather reputable.

Dr. James Roberts (2015) from Baylor University developed six specific features (salience, tolerance, euphoria, withdrawal, relapse, and conflict) and corresponding questions that identify social media addiction.

Click HERE to take the quiz.

Sonja BethuneAssistant Professor in the Division of General Education, Ashford University

American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Washington, DC: Author.

Are You Addicted To Social Media? Expert Offers Six Questions to Ask Yourself. (2016). Media Communications | Baylor University. Retrieved 22 August 2017, from https://www.baylor.edu/mediacommunications/news.php?action=story&story=174059

Facebook Newsroom. (2017). Stats. Retrieved from https://newsroom.fb.com/company-info/

Nauert, R. (2010, April 23). College students ‘addicted’ to social media, Study finds. Live Science. Retrieved from https://www.livescience.com/9888-college-students-addicted-social-media-study-finds.html

Pew Research Center. (2017, January 12). Social media fact sheet. Retrieved from http://www.pewinternet.org/fact-sheet/social-media/

Rosen, L., Whaling, K., Rab, S., Carrier, L., & Cheever, N. (2013). Is Facebook creating ‘iDisorders’? The link between clinical symptoms of psychiatric disorders and technology use, attitudes and anxiety. Computers in Human Behavior, 29(3), 1243-1254.

Roberts, J. A. (2015). Too much of a good thing: Are you addicted to your smartphone?. Austin, TX: Sentia Publishing.

Tarsha, A. A. (2016). The role of existential therapy in the prevention of social media-driven anxiety. Existential Analysis, 27(2), 382-388.