While quarantined in late April, Weinberg second-year Annika Echols saw a Snapchat story of her friend who had just gotten out of quarantine playing games and partying with a large group of people. She felt a slight pang of envy before the sadness hit.

“I cried a little, then I got into the shower to try to do some self care to make myself feel better,” Echols said. “It just sucked.”

During her quarantine, social media became Echol’s portal to the outside world. She even made a TikTok shortcut that would make the videos scroll at the sound of the word “next.” But all the exposure to people’s fun lives pushed her further in a mental slump.

FOMO (fear of missing out), as Echols experienced, can often lead to a compulsion to be constantly in the know about peoples’ lives, often through the use of social media. Teenagers and adolescents may be more susceptible to FOMO, and it can provoke jealousy, envy, anxiety, low self-esteem and sadness or depression. Social media usage has risen amid the pandemic, and researchers found FOMO persisted even during the start of the lockdown, when in-person events were scarce.  

Nathaniel Langley, a third-year at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said he spends six to eight hours on social media daily, more than twice the national average of three hours. Langley said he frequently experiences FOMO with career prospects, trends and peer meetups.

“It pulls on your heart a bit,” Langley said. “You feel a little anxious about it and you also just kind of feel a sense of insecurity.”

Having anxiety, low motivation or self-esteem may make it easier to scroll on social media aimlessly instead of doing the very thing you’re missing out on, according to Carmen Ochoa-Galindo, a licensed mental health clinician practicing in Cook County.

Benjamin Borrok, a Communication fourth-year at Northwestern, said there are features on social media apps that expose users to more things they could be missing out on.

“I'd say that Twitter trends … personalized [feeds] – all that stuff – definitely increases that feeling,” Borrok said. “And then, the endless scroll feature that TikTok has.”

There are many ways to mitigate the effects of FOMO. A social media detox is one of the first pieces of advice that experts give. Olusola Ajilore, director of the Mood and Anxiety Disorders Program at the University of Illinois Chicago, recommends limiting social media usage and taking breaks between uses.

Ajilore also recommends curating your feed by not following accounts that can cause insecurities, like social media influencers who tend to post about their lavish lives. The algorithm presents the content people interact with the most, said Ajilore.

Ajilore added that young adults and adolescents must realize that social media posts that show the positive aspects of friends and followers’ lives, which can cause FOMO, are not full depictions of peoples’ authentic lives.

“Life isn’t just about the fun moments,” said Ajilore. “Life is [also] about the work, about times when you’re feeling down.”

Learning not to associate social media with self-worth is a strategy recommended by Karen Rudolph, a psychology professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

Rudolph said it is important to base self-worth on internal factors one can control, not external factors like what others are partaking in — a strategy SESP first-year Kelly Vogt said has empowered her.

Vogt said she avoided FOMO during quarantine in early April by telling herself that soon she would be back in the real world. Vogt also reminded herself that she still has three more years left in college, and going to parties is not the end all be all of her experience.

“FOMO increases so much more when you’re on social media … you constantly [get] that pressure of ‘oh my gosh, they went out, oh my gosh they look so cool,’” said Vogt. “I gave up social media [during quarantine] so it was nice to … sit with myself and realize I don’t need to be staring at other people’s lives to be happy.”

Thumbnail graphic by Kim Jao.