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Social media can create 'fear of missing out'

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- As the constant need for communication is becoming the social norm, it's increasingly difficult for people to differentiate their virtual life from their real social life, leading to ballooned social anxiety.

That need for constant communication may stem from something being dubbed the "fear of missing out," a sense that people think there is something better going on than the activity they are participating in at the moment. That need turns into a compulsion to be constantly connected.

People have traditionally had "downtime. They didn't need to be connected 24/7 to email, to the phone or to other people. Now, people never have to be alone and even when they are with other people, there is still this fear that maybe something better is going on," said John Grohol, psychologist and founder of Psychcentral.com.

"We have people who basically don't want to wait anymore, who need instant gratification. Technology has enabled that."

Society's relationship with technology is still new, he added. "We take it for granted because the Internet has been around for [years] so we think it should come naturally."

However, "the truth of the matter is that humans aren't built with the skills in place to incorporate all this new technology readily without some stress."

In a New York Times article last year, one writer documented her own experience with FOMO.

"As the alerts came in, my mind began to race," Jenna Wortham wrote. "Three friends, I learned, had arrived at a music venue near my apartment. But why? What was happening there? Then I saw pictures of other friends enjoying fancy milkshakes at a trendy restaurant. Suddenly, my simple domestic pleasures paled in comparison with the things I could be doing."

Grohol said that fear is "a legitimate sense that some people have. But I think it's sort of a false dichotomy. There is always something better that we could be doing instead of what we are doing. We are just setting ourselves up for constant disappointment."

He added that technology now thrusts those alternate plans into our faces, which can make some people who already have self-esteem issues feel insecure about their social interactions.

In 2011 at the Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association, Larry D. Rosen, who has done extensive research on the psychology of technology, said "while nobody can deny that Facebook has altered the landscape of social interaction, particularly among young people, we are just now starting to see solid psychological research demonstrating both the positives and the negatives."

His talk, titled "Poke Me: How Social Networks Can Both Help and Harm Our Kids," suggests that daily overuse of media and technology has a negative effect on the health of all children, preteens and teenagers by making them more prone to anxiety and depression as well as making them more susceptible to future health problems.

Marshal University professor Stephen D. Cooper, who specializes in computer-mediated communication, said social studies about the impact of social media aren't conclusive and vary by user.

"Social science is not a matter of someone doing a study and it becoming unquestionable truth," he said, adding that people's actions will always be a variable in any study.

"Some relationships are formed with social media that never would have been formed without it. Others are alienating in some way by using social media. It's a mix of both."

Cooper said he thinks social media relationships add another layer to our interactions.

"It reminds me of when TV came out. People thought that would wipe out other forms of media, but it just added to the mix," he said.

As much as social media is helpful, Grohol said users should relish in disconnecting from time to time.

"You have to look and ask if the constant updates are enhancing or improving my life. What are they doing for me? Do I really need to be available 24/7?" he said.

"In most cases, the answer is overwhelmingly no."

However, there are teenagers who grow up thinking they do have to be connected constantly because that virtual connection is how they relate most strongly to their friends.

But that constant contact doesn't allow humans to recharge.

"Humans weren't built to be available 24/7. That is why we spend six or eight hours a day sleeping. We need to regroup and unwind where our attention isn't always being demanded by the new Twitter updates that just passed my screen," Grohol said.

For people who feel social anxiety related to their virtual life, Grohol said there is an easy fix.

"In the end, [social media] is just providing as much information as people want to partake in. If it doesn't make them feel good, they could stop checking their Facebook page."

Reach Kathryn Gregory at kathryng@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5119.


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