Buzz, Culture

We Can’t Stop Checking the News Either. Welcome to the New FOMO

This other type of FOMO, the all-news, all-the-time kind, is new enough that nobody has really studied it much, yet of the half-dozen experts in sociology, anthropology, economics, and neurology I spoke to, all quickly recognized what I was describing, and some even admitted to feeling it themselves. “We scroll through our Twitter feeds, not seeking anything specific, just monitoring them so we don’t miss out on anything important,” says Shyam Sundar, a communications researcher at Pennsylvania State University. This impulse could stem from the chemical hits our brains receive with each news hit, but it could also derive from a primitive behavioral instinct—surveillance gratification-seeking, or the urge that drove our cave-dwelling ancestors to poke their heads out and check for predators. In times of perceived crisis, our brains cry out for information to help us survive. Maybe this alarm stems from steady hits of @­realDonaldTrump. Maybe it’s triggered by left-wing Resistance types. Or could it be #FakeNews, ISIS, guns, police violence, or street crime, all propagated through our social media bubbles with headlines that are written specifically to grab our attention?

This feels like a processing problem. “One thing we learn about human beings: We’re meaning-making machines,” Kross says. And social mania may be ideal for mainlining breaking news, but it’s not great at providing meaning and context. Naturally Kross, Sundar, and everyone else I spoke with suggested that anyone afflicted with FOMO, news or otherwise, ought to take social media breaks. A large recent study in Denmark randomly assigned some people to not use Facebook for a week, and across a variety of metrics it showed that those people’s moods and well-being were better compared with those who did not take breaks. OK, fine. But I don’t want to take a break. The internet is doing exactly what it’s supposed to: give me all the information, all the time. And I want to hold that fire hose of information right up to my face and gulp down as much as I can. I just don’t want to feel bad about it.

Paradoxically, one strategy for coping with the overload is by adding to the stream. Kross says research has shown that people who actively engage more with social media—by tweeting in response to news, commenting on stories, posting messages, joining online groups—tend to be slightly happier than those who do not.

To that end, Sundar suggests a more sustained, interactive approach to social media: Finish reading every post before moving on to the next one, but not before commenting, tweeting, or posting your thoughts about it. Through that degree of enhanced engagement, you not only limit the volume of your social media intake—one can only comment so many times—but you develop a better sense of which issues really inspire, enrage, or matter most to you. Adjust your feed accordingly, and unfollow anyone who consistently serves up covfefe or whatever else you can probably go without. You’ll realize, sooner than you imagine, that you’re not missing out on anything.

This article appears in the September issue. Subscribe now.

illustrations by zohar lazar. lettering by braulio amado.

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