Is Social Media Worsening Our Social Fears?

Leanna M.W. Lui, HBSc


September 10, 2021

Ping. Here's a picture of your friends on a trip without you. 

Ding. In your inbox, you find an email from your attending dismissing you from a very important project or patient.

Ring. There's that call from your colleague telling you all about the incredible dinner they had with some other residents, which you weren't invited to.

FoMO. Fear of missing out. 

FoMO refers to a social anxiety phenomenon fueled by the need or desire to participate in an experience, event, interaction, or investment. It can be conceptualized in two parts: (1) social ostracism and (2) the need to maintain social connectedness through a sense of belonging and/or strong relationships. It is generally characterized by episodic feelings of regret, discontent, social inferiority, and/or loneliness. 

Social Networking Sites and FoMO

Social networking sites (SNS) are a great way for people to connect instantaneously and without borders. However, they may also decrease the quality of intimate connections and relationships. In the current COVID-19 era of Zoom, most of us could agree that face-to-face and in-person communication triumphs over internet-based interactions. I can attest that Zoom university, endless FaceTime calls, and late-night Netflix parties are not fulfilling my desire for in-person interactions. That is to say, SNS cannot fully compensate for our unmet social needs

In fact, achieving social compensation through SNS may exacerbate social fears and anxiety disorders, and encourage rumination. For example, a recent systematic review investigating the relationship between social media use among individuals who are socially anxious and lonely found that both of the foregoing factors may lead to greater negative and inhibitory behavior as a result of social media use. In other words, these individuals may experience maladaptive cognitive patterns (eg, rumination) and greater negative social comparison. Feelings of inadequacy can lead to a distorted sense of oneself. 

Ping. Ding. Ring. In 2021, almost half of people in the United States spend 5-6 hours on their phone daily.

Most of us are one click away from what essentially is a "live stream" of continuous updates on peoples' lives. With these constant updates, we often start to imagine what we're missing out on: trips, dinners, parties, and everything under the sun. However, in reality, what we see on social media is only a fraction of true reality. For example, that 10-second video of your friend going hiking cannot begin to sum up the entire day. The 24/7 nature of SNS can often lead to a perversion of the truth and unhealthy self-comparisons. 

In this vicious cycle of notifications and constant entertainment, unreasonable expectations are created that adversely impact self-confidence and self-esteem, and may even lead to the emergence of depressive symptoms. 

FoMO and negative associations of SNS go hand in hand. While SNS are a powerful tool for connection and information, they have also been reported to negatively impact quality of interactions.

Next time you see a picture, video, or post of a missed event, perhaps it's best to stop thinking of the "what ifs" and start crafting your own narrative.

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About Leanna Lui
Leanna M.W. Lui, HBSc, completed an HBSc global health specialist degree at the University of Toronto, where she is now an MSc candidate. Her interests include mood disorders, health economics, public health, and applications of artificial intelligence. In her spare time, she is a fencer with the University of Toronto Varsity Fencing team and the Canadian Fencing Federation.


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