Scientists link 'fear of missing out' with illicit behaviour

FOMO alert! ‘Fear of missing out’ makes students more likely to engage in ‘illicit behaviours’ such as taking drugs, stealing and being disrespectful in the classroom

  • Fear of missing out (FOMO) is the belief our friends are having fun without us 
  • Researchers found a link between high FOMO and illicit behaviours in students 
  • High FOMO was linked with drugs and alcohol consumption, stealing and more

It’s already known that ‘fear of missing out’ (FOMO) – the belief that people are having fun without us – can cause mental health issues.

But a new study suggests the psychological phenomenon can also make youngsters more prone to breaking the law. 

Researchers in Connecticut surveyed college students about their levels of FOMO and whether they engaged in illicit behaviours. 

Higher levels of FOMO were linked with drugs and alcohol consumption, stealing and ‘incivility’ in the classroom, the academics found. 

In the new study, fear of missing out (FOMO) is linked with drugs and alcohol consumption, stealing and classroom incivility (file photo)


Fear of missing out (FOMO) is a unique term introduced in 2004 to describe a phenomenon observed on social networking sites. 

FOMO includes two processes – firstly, a perception of missing out on a positive experience, followed up with a compulsive behaviour to maintain these social connections. 

FOMO is linked with negative life experiences and feelings, as well as a problematic attachment to social media. 

Source: Gupta et al. (2021)

The new study has been led by researchers at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven and published today in PLOS One. 

The experts say in their paper: ‘Stuck finishing work with approaching deadlines you decline your colleagues’ invitation to a local restaurant, but you feel uneasy that you are missing out on the fun? 

‘This uneasiness is the fear of missing out (FOMO)… chronic apprehension that one is missing rewarding/fun experiences peers are experiencing.

‘This study examined the relationship of trait level FOMO in college students and engagement in maladaptive behaviours through the lens of traditional statistical modeling and supervised machine learning. 

‘Overall, the results indicate that higher levels of FOMO does predict greater engagement in academic misconduct, alcohol drinking, illegal drug use, and other illegal behaviours.’ 

The experts can’t be sure that FOMO causes illicit behaviours, although it is possible there’s a common trigger for both factors in certain personality types. 

FOMO is a term introduced in 2004 to describe a phenomenon observed on social networking sites. 

It includes two processes – firstly, a perception of missing out on a positive experience, followed up with a compulsive behaviour to maintain these social connections (such as using our smartphone). 

In prior studies, FOMO has been linked with poor sleep, increased depression and anxiety and negative effects on academic performance.

But the researchers wanted to see if it could facilitate ‘maladaptive behaviours and psychological problems’ for students at college, which is an ‘intimidating’ novel environment. 

For the study, 472 college students from an unnamed ‘Northeastern university’ completed a questionnaire assessing FOMO levels, unethical and illegal behaviour while in college and demographic variables, such as socioeconomic status. 

FoMO is a term introduced in 2004 to describe a phenomenon observed on social networking sites. It includes two processes – firstly, a perception of missing out on a positive experience, followed up with a compulsive behaviour to maintain these social connections ,such as using our smartphone (file photo)

The researchers analysed this data both by using standard statistical approaches and by applying a machine learning algorithm. 

With the first analysis approach, the team discovered associations between FOMO and nearly all the behaviours they examined. 

Higher FOMO was correlated with stealing, higher rates of classroom incivility, plagiarism, greater weekly alcohol consumption, lower age when beginning drinking alcohol and illegal activities including giving away drugs. 

High FOMO levels were also linked with an increased use of cannabis, stimulants, depressants and hallucinogens.

Student explains FOMO in TED Talk 

The machine learning algorithm found similar associations and highlighted the modifying effect of living situation, socioeconomic status and gender on several of the relationships.  

The authors suggest that a brief FOMO assessment, including just 10 questions, may be valuable for counselors who assist students in the transition to college or university.

‘These results suggest that FOMO exists not just as an aversive phenomenon, but it also leads to concrete consequences for individuals and society,’ the team conclude.

FOMO has also been linked with how we use our smartphones – a study published earlier this year found people with FOMO checked their phones more when notifications were muted.

Overall, whether or not people suffered FOMO, muting notifications can be ‘psychologically distressing’ and makes people check their phone more – not less. 

Forget FOMO! We’re now more likely to suffer from FOJI, MOMO and JOMO (and it’s all social media’s fault) 

FOMO – fear of missing out – is the acute and often unjustified belief that everyone is having more fun than you, and that you’re somehow being left out of all the fun. 

But this affliction, thought to be caused by social media where you see endless status updates and photos of your friends showing off their (supposedly) happier, more exciting lives, is just the tip of the worry iceberg.

In fact, FOMO has become such a problem that recent studies suggest it can manifest as a genuine form of social anxiety and even lead to an increased risk of alcohol abuse and depression among certain age groups. 

But now commentators are suggesting that FOMO is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to social media-related acronyms. 

There is now a whole range of afflictions caused by all the fun your friends are having on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat – and the chances are, you’re suffering from at least one of them. 

FOMOMO: Fear of the mystery of missing out 

A more extreme case of FOMO that occurs only when your phone is broken or out of battery. 

According to the Guardian , it means you’re afraid of missing out, but not because of what you see on social media – it’s what you don’t see that’s causing you real angst.

Deprived of seeing your friends’ photos and check-ins, you automatically assume that everyone on your Instagram feed is having a riotous time without you. 

MOMO: Mystery of missing out 

This is the paranoia that arises when your friends don’t post anything on social media at all.

Instead, you’re left with no option but to scroll obsessively through your Facebook and Twitter timelines searching for clues. 

Imagining them having the time of their lives at wild parties (without you), you naturally assume the worst. 

The assumption here is that your friends are too busy having fun to even think about documenting the experience. 

FOJI: Fear of joining in 

The polar opposite to MOMO; if you suffer from FOJI, you’re far less likely to keep your friends updated on Facebook and Instagram because you’re not quite sure what to post and you’re worried that nobody will like or comment on your photos. 

In fact, you might opt out of social media altogether for fear that nobody will want to connect, follow or be ‘friends’ with you. 

BROMO: Your ‘bros’ protect you from missing out 

An act of solidarity from your friends. If they’ve been out the night before, they’ll deliberately refrain from posting photos of the fun they were having, for fear of making you feel left out. 

SLOMO: Slow to missing out

In this case, your anxiety is probably justified. Everybody is having a better time than you, but you’re asleep so you don’t know it until the next morning when you log into Facebook and find your timeline littered with photos of the night before

JOMO: Joy of missing out 

Taking pleasure in ‘missing out’ by not feeling like you have to be everywhere at once. Instead, you’re quite content with staying in bed with a cup of tea and a book. 

NtB: Need to belong 

Meanwhile, NtB is the biological human need to feel like part of a group and to form relationships with other people.

‘NtB is extremely pervasive across human beings and has a significant impact on individuals’ cognitions, emotions as well as behaviours,’ says a 2021 study published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior. 

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