Updated 17 September 2015

Do you fear being offline, or separated from your phone?

CyberShrink explains how our fascination with social media may just be an expression of our fear of missing out (FOMO).


I was recently informed that we as a nation are so addicted to our PCs, laptops, tablets and cell-phones that we need to visit “the world’s first mobile clinic to test South Africans for the fear of being offline (FOBO), and phone separation anxiety (PSA)”.

This announcement by iFix was accompanied by photographs of a young woman in an antiquated nurse’s uniform with a silly nurse’s hat (see right). It worried me slightly that she was wearing wrinkled latex gloves, making me wonder what she intends doing with those pesky phones.

Jokes aside, they don’t actually propose any invasive surgery on your person, just on your appliances – in order to lessen the impact of the abovementioned diseases.

Read: Cellphone addiction driven by materialism

They insist that international studies have shown an addiction to technological devices. This is strange as there’s no agreement on the exact definition of “internet addiction” or “gadget dependence”, or whatever the diagnosis du jour. It’s not been proved that such conditions exist at all, let alone cause serious problems. 

Am I therefore a 'book addict'? 

Using the word “addicted” makes things sound dramatic and serious, but actually it is inappropriate and unhelpful. I often get really immersed in books, but nobody has ever suggested that I’m a “book addict”. People who genuinely battle with real addictions may be offended by such frivolous abuse of the term.

They plan to “diagnose” these disorders with a questionnaire “and render a solution while on the move”. I’m not sure why they feel they need to keep on the move, unless it is to flee from enraged test subjects. Their test has of course never been validated scientifically and looks like a flimsy affair. They claim the average score would be 58% (not explaining 58% of what). 

This new invention of FOBO sounds an awful lot like FOMO (fear of missing out), which was being touted not so long ago as the new universal disorder.

FOMO could easily be the primary condition. Being off-line isn’t usually disturbing in itself, but the concern that while you’re offline you might miss something massive is huge!

Read: Social media may increase depression in teens

Writing about these fake conditions, they subscribe to the popular delusion that it’s compulsory to share everything. They ask how you would share it with others if something nice happened to you. Why you feel this compelling need to share the minutiae of your existence with all and sundry is not questioned at all.   

One of the most endearing characteristics of my best friends is that they don’t feel obliged to share most things with me. On what basis do the Zuckerbergs of this world decide that it’s unacceptable for us to enjoy the good things in life on our own? Why must we share everything with others? I wish my friends every happiness, but I don't need moment-by-moment reports on every detail of their lives. 

But let’s return to FOMO.


This term has been around for quite some time. I know it sounds like a new washing powder, or perhaps a gay Hobbit (a pal of Dildo Baggins?) but it actually refers to a ubiquitous “fear of missing out”. 

Back in the day when I was lecturing, I noticed how there would be some folks who’d rush up to you and chatter emptily while restlessly scanning the space behind you, in case someone more illustrious than you turned up.

I have noticed a similar situation at large conventions. There would be simultaneous sessions, often in adjacent rooms. As you sat listening to a presentation, you’d hear laughter or applause from an adjoining room – and felt convinced they were having a much better time than you . . .

Read: Social media can lead to internet addiction

Making one choice essentially excludes other alternatives. That’s the way it is and always has been, but nowadays we’re far more aware of other options – i.e. whispers from paths not taken.

Feeling more ‘left out’

And social media make it all much worse! Rather than feeling more "connected", you feel more “left out” – all your friends seem to be doing much more thrilling things than you are.

A while ago people spoke of "keeping up with the Joneses" when you started struggling to match your neighbours’ lifestyle. But, as this depended on proximity and direct observation, there weren't too many Joneses in your life.

Now there are masses of Joneses, all busy telling you what wonderful things they're doing, and rubbing your nose in it. Of course they don't send pictures of themselves at home, yawning and scratching themselves, hunting for anything worth watching on TV, or at deadly dull parties; it’s only the highlights they share.   


Online personae on Facebook are inherently false. Facebook is structured to encourage bragging, not accuracy. If you tweeted or posted insistently about every dull thing that actually happened in your life, you'd never be re-tweeted, liked or friended. Thus, many people frankly lie or fake the exciting person they pretend to be online, presenting a false impression of their lives. Even when they’re posting the truth, it’s a selective and edited truth.

Virtual lives

Have you noticed how often nowadays, when something noteworthy is happening, audience shots show a forest of waving arms, each holding a smartphone? The people present are busy taking pictures or videos of the event, both to send it to others (to make them envious) and to actually look at – but later. Soon you won't be able to ask for eye-witness reports anymore – they'll have watch the replay of the video they shot and tweeted before they know what actually happened in front of their eyes. 

Read: Filipino film highlights dangers of social media

I have an image of someone sitting on a bench, staring at his IPhone, texting frantically about last night's party. Behind him, the ranks of angelic choirs are singing heavenly songs as the Second Coming occurs. And he's missing all of it . . .

By the same token, people become convinced that everyone else must be having a far better sex life than they are – and become FOMO-sexual.

Coping with FOMO 

Yes, a great many somebodies may indeed be having a much better time than you, but even more people are having a very much worse time than you are.

A simple web-check shows that almost every journalist has written about FOMO: they’re scared to be missing out on the fear of missing out.

With FOMO you’re not actually sure what it is you’re missing out on, only that there is probably something better out there than what you’re experiencing. Of course you’re always missing out on something. Mostly, though, it’s something well worth missing. It has always been this way; only previously you were lucky enough not to be aware of it.  

Read: Do you use social media to manage your moods?

The more time you spend checking e-mails and social media updates, the less you are involved with the present moment. Checking unachievable options, you are missing out on the here and now. We don't stop to smell the roses – we're too busy checking out other people’s roses online.   

The web/smartphone fools you with illusions: primarily a sense of being connected to people who often aren’t even aware of you. How often do you check your messages, only to discover that nobody is saying anything that matters? 

Looking in the mirror is cheaper

Over-using social media can make you feel more lonely, not less. As the title of a recent book proclaims, “We’re busy being alone together”. In a way you’re chatting to yourself – and looking in the mirror is cheaper. It’s difficult to stop, though, like the fear that the moment you leave a boring party, something exciting might happen.

Read: Tips for Facebook safety

It’s a hard battle: You’re comparing yourself (warts and all) to how other people are pretending to be – broadcasting the best of who they are or can simulate.

We’ve always known that the grass is greener on the other side of the fence – but nowadays it’s much more difficult not to feel depressed about your "grass" when you’re being bombarded with all your friends’ glorious technicolour lawns. 

All this technology is of course relatively new, and it’ll take a little while for us to get used to it and find our psychological balance. We will hopefully learn how to use it properly, rather than allow it to use us.    

Also never forget that these wondrous “social tools” were developed by socially inadequate geeks and nerds – the most socially awkward in real life, and the people you would least want to be like.

Read more:

SA in the grip of ‘FOMO’ addiction

Is social media healthy?

Social media can feed Munchausen by proxy

Professor MA Simpson is Health24's CyberShrink. A South African psychiatrist, he qualified in medicine and in psychiatry in Britain. He has been a senior academic, researcher, and Professor in several countries. Read more of his columns.




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