Social media, anxiety & the fear of missing out

Trying to remember life before social media is near impossible. As of August 2017, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram were all within the top four most used apps. We use them for news, socialising, sharing photos and so much more, but what happens when social media turns from something freeing and fun, to something that makes you feel anxious and trapped?

We constantly worry about making sure we look like we’re leading fun lives by posting various images and writing numerous statuses, and we always worry if we look as perfect as we can be and if we will get enough likes.

Social media has been classed as an anxiety-provoking factor, with fear of missing out (also known as FOMO), and the idea of compare-and-despair being the apparent main triggers for this form of anxiety. Many people are scared of checking their profiles in case they see something they don’t like; friends out without them, conversations where they are either excluded or the focal point, and it’s beginning to create an unhealthy air around the various social media platforms.

FOMO is viewed as the most likely cause of social media anxiety. If the user sees an event they were not invited to, or photos from a night out that they were unable to attend, it can, according to mental health specialists, take its toll on not only mental health, but also self-esteem. It presents a quandary of not wanting to scroll through the homepage of the platform, but at the same time not wanting to miss out on anything that is said or arranged between friends on it.

J Walter Thompson Intelligence writes how, “millennial festival-goers are quick to share their experiences on social media—largely via Facebook (72%), but also via other channels such as Instagram (35%) and Twitter (32%).” This has lead Michelle Sadlier, head of innovation and social media at Hunter Boots to discuss further how this can lead to people capitalising on FOMO.

The idea of compare-and-despair has been linked mainly with Instagram. Although it was rated amongst the best for self-expression, it is associated with the highest levels of anxiety, depression and FOMO. Seeing images of friends on holiday, enjoying a night out or anything similar can cause young people to feel like they are not living their life to the fullest in comparison to the people they are seeing images of. This idea is supported through a survey undertaken by the Royal Society of Public Health at the beginning of 2017; here they found that after asking almost 1,500 14-24 year olds, Instagram was found to be the most negative in terms of impact on mental health. (http://ow.ly/o1Gs30eQ5s3)

Shirley Cramer CBE, Chief Executive, Royal Society of Public Health, said: “It’s interesting to see Instagram and Snapchat ranking as the worst for mental health and wellbeing – both platforms are very image-focused and it appears they may be driving feelings of inadequacy and anxiety in young people.”

Another cause of anxiety through Instagram is the constant flow of fitness images. As mentioned in an article on Time (http://ow.ly/Xowz30eQ5vi), “Instagram easily makes girls and women feel as if their bodies aren’t good enough, as people add filters and edit their pictures in order for them to look ‘perfect’.” By comparing yourself to those you see on social media, with seemingly unattainable goals, it can easily cause huge amounts of distress, depression and anxiety.

As humans, we crave attention and approval through social media, whether that is the number of comments we get on a post, or likes we get on a photo - if they drop from the previous, then it is almost as though there is something wrong. A large majority of people are now measuring their self-worth through their social media metrics and popularity.

The comparison of virtual friends and what would be classed as ‘real’ friends is also an interesting discussion. Someone can have hundreds of friends on their networks, but next to nobody to see in real life – is this really a healthy way of living? Associated feelings of loneliness and anxiety tend to go hand in hand, and this wave of people living virtual lives only increases this unruly partnership. Laci Green, professional health YouTuber, said; “Socialising from behind a screen can be uniquely isolating, obscuring mental health challenges even more than usual. As the first generation of social media users to become adults, it is important that we lay the groundwork now to minimise potential harm and shape a digital future that is healthy and thriving.” 

In 2015, Essena O’Neill, who at the time had over half a million followers, quit Instagram after calling it a “contrived perfection made to get attention”. She explained at the time how she would obsess over the number of likes she got for each post, and how the little reality actually went into her photos. The Guardian investigated further into this idea and spoke to a variety of women to get their opinions on the platform; http://ow.ly/acaV30eQ63y. They found that a large number of women feel insecure and under pressure to look a certain way.

As Sherry Turkle, the author of ‘Alone Together’, says, “phones in our pockets offer the gratifying fantasy that we never have to be alone. The moment people are alone, even for a few seconds, they become anxious, they panic, they fidget, they reach for a device.”

Social media is such an important part of the modern world; it is a constant source of updated news, a way to discover new ideas and a lot more. Each person reacts differently to social media and the positive and negative aspects, the important thing is to learn how to deal with them, and also to make sure you don’t overuse the networks.

Written by Kennady Smith, 06/09/2017