The Science Behind FOMO Psychology and How to Stop Social Media Compulsions

If you follow social media, you’ve probably heard the term “FOMO” — fear of missing out. Are apps like Facebook and Twitter so fascinating that you can’t miss a second of the nonstop action? Hopefully, your answer is a resounding no.

Why is it, then, that so many of us can’t seem to put down our phones? Like Pavlov’s dogs, we respond to every single beep or visual cue that something is happening somewhere. Here’s the science behind FOMO psychology and how you can break the compulsion to check your phone and accomplish more IRL — in real life. 

What Is the Science Behind FOMO Psychology? 

In many ways, the science behind FOMO psychology parallels why people slow down to look at car accidents. Researchers theorize that the urge relates to the survival instinct — we ask what happened to learn how to prevent similar crashes. 

The visual stimuli alone prompt the behavior. Scientists from the University of Central Florida had 54 students drive past one of two accidents. The first used a barrier to obscure their view, while others employed a partial fence or none at all. Those who couldn’t see the grisly scene cast fewer glances toward it than when it remained visible. 

FOMO similarly lights up the same neurons that respond to stimuli like some crashes. It prompts us to think, “What’s happening, and why can’t I take part in the excitement?” Humans did — and still do — rely on others for survival. In primitive times, exclusion from the group led to death, and people still fear ostracism instinctively. 

Ironically, in our modern world, this behavior can lead to missing out on IRL social activities. Who isn’t familiar with going out on a date, only to have your partner glue their eyes to their phone throughout dinner? If you spend family mealtime staring at tablets, your kids will grow up before you notice — and you can’t get that time back. 

Fortunately, you can learn a lesson from accident scenes — out of sight is, frequently, out of mind. If your phone is your best friend and sidekick, you might need to do a social media detox by deleting your favorite apps temporarily. The process can teach you much about yourself — like how to use Facebook recreationally instead of obsessively. 

8 Ways to Stop FOMO Social Media Compulsions 

If you haven’t yet reached the “cold, dead hands” stage of social media addiction, you might want to cut back on virtual life to engage more with the real one. Here are eight methods based on the science of FOMO psychology that can help minimize your screen time. 

1. Use Screen Time Limits

Most cellphones allow you to set screen time limits for various applications. Learn how to apply these controls, and challenge yourself to resist adding 15 more minutes after your time expires. If you want a “slow turkey” approach to decreasing your use, you can gradually tighten each week’s time allotment.

2. Set a Timer

Does checking one alert morph into an hour-long scrolling session? If you need a short brain break between tasks requiring concentration, set a timer before you open your Facebook app. Give yourself no more than five or 10 minutes to engage in silly banter or click “like.” 

3. Turn Off Your Device

If you need to engage in a task requiring focus, turn your cellphone off and exit any social media apps on your computer screen. We promise you — Instagram will still be there when you finish writing your Biology 101 essay or wrap up that expense report. 

4. Lock Your Phone in a Drawer 

If you’re a parent, you might shudder at the thought of turning your phone off. You can nevertheless maintain contact with your kids without distracting social media alerts. Remember, the science of FOMO psychology teaches that out of sight is out of mind. Lock your phone in a drawer at work to still hear it ring while disabling other notifications. 

5. Use Parental Controls 

Ironically enough, if you need to break your cellphone addiction, there’s an app for that. Once you enable many of these bad boys, you can’t open Facebook minus the hacking skills of Penelope Garcia from “Criminal Minds” fame. Who said you couldn’t “ground” yourself as an adult? 

6. Pretend Your Boss Is Watching

If you recently switched from the office to telecommuting during COVID, you might find your phone’s siren song irresistible. You don’t have to worry about your supervisor catching you sneaking a peak unless you’re in a Zoom meeting with your cam enabled. Pretend they might creep up behind you at any minute, anyway. 

7. Develop Connections IRL 

If you disappeared tomorrow, the vast majority of your social media buddies wouldn’t miss you. Yet, many of us can’t go a day without wondering what is happening in their lives. The best remedy for this phenomenon is to make real-life friends. 

If you live near your social media mates, arrange to meet for tea and do anything from taking a Zumba class to volunteering at an animal shelter together. There’s no virtual substitute for IRL camaraderie, as pleasant as Zoom happy hours are. 

8. Take Healthier Breaks 

You’re not alone if the first thing you do is whip out your phone when you get your afternoon break. However, why not mix things up and improve your health instead of mindlessly surfing social media? Use this time to squeeze in a 10-minute walk, especially if the weather outside is pleasant. You’ll boost productivity and mood and return to your desk more refreshed. 

Understand the Science Behind FOMO Psychology to Stop Social Media Compulsions and Become More Productive 

Now that you understand the science of FOMO psychology, you know why you feel driven to check cellphone alerts like a Pavlovian dog. Use these tips to break free from the compulsion to scroll social media and get more done IRL.