And Now, FONO


Back in 2000, FOMO — Fear of Missing Out — came into being. The acronym was supposed to describe the feeling that something’s happening and you are not a part of it.

This year, I saw FONO popping up online. A writer in The Washington Post used the term FONO to mean Fear of Normal. AS things somewhat return to a kind of normal, some people who have become used to the stress, social isolation, and emotional ups and downs of a pandemic year are feeling uncomfortable about a return to normal.

I follow the science and I know that science changes, as it should. But the changing science of COVID causes additional confusion and fear. Infections and death numbers were dropping. Vaccinations were rising. But then this summer cases went back up just when cities, states and individuals decided we could act pretty normally again. CDC guidelines keep changing. Politicians keep reinterpreting the guidelines or coming up with their own. It is more difficult to reinstate restrictions than it is to initiate them. And much of the return to normalcy is clearly more economically-based than healthcare-based.

Should we move more slowly with our post-pandemic recovery? What impact would that have on the spread of COVID and its variants? What effect would it have on the economy? What psychological effect would it have on health and the economy?

Has your fear of missing out on life the past year and a half now become a fear of returning to normal?

The Fear and Regret of Missing Out


On Whensday – or was it Blursday or Blendsday or Againsday or Wheresday – I noticed how many unread notifications were in my Facebook feed. My collected email inbox had more than 100 unread. I felt obligated to check both places.

Fear of missing out (FOMO) is a social anxiety that comes out of the belief that others might be having fun while the person experiencing the anxiety is not present. Is there any “fun” factor in checking Facebook or email? There must be. If not fun, there is a fear that there is something in those notifications that we need to know. Maybe there is something enjoyable in those places. There might be a cute photo of a grandchild or a vacation sunset photo. Do those things delight you, or make you just a bit jealous?

We often hear that we are living in a continually-connected time. We are much too concerned with what others are doing. FOMO can also be defined as a fear of regret.

Social networking has provided a very rich environment for FOMO. An online search will lead you to plenty of research about psychological dependence on social networks and the resulting anxiety and even pathological Internet use.

It wasn’t a doctor or even a psychologist who first identified this phenomenon. It was identified in 1996 by a marketing strategist, Dr. Dan Herman. He published his research in 2000 in The Journal of Brand Management. He didn’t coin the term FOMO.

FOMO is very much with us during this pandemic. I would say that it has increased, except that now the missing out is quite literal. We are not seeing many people or going many places. We’re not traveling. My social media photos are of my garden rather than the gardens of Europe.

People have moved even more to Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to socialize amid the pandemic despite the research that shows that is more likely to create FOMO than make genuine connections.

I ca children’s book, Seraphina Does Everything! that is about FOMO. The author is a productivity expert, Melissa Gratias.

Seraphina does soccer, ballet, French club, and has a very busy life because she doesn’t want to miss a thing.  But even though Seraphina is doing all the things she wants to do, she’s not happy.

If I don’t open every door to see what lies within,
I’ll miss an opportunity that might not come again.
I stay busy day and night, through winter, fall, and spring.
I crush my fear of missing out by doing EVERYTHING.

Who is this cautionary tale meant for – children or their parents? Is that the Seraphinas want to be busy, or have adults made their days so busy that they’ve become fearful of missing out?

I’m tempted to just click the magic “Mark All As Read” button in Facebook and email. But what might I be missing out on seeing?

Ignore More

Ever since I was a very young student, I’ve been told to pay attention and focus – and was sometimes scolded for not doing so.. Both things are obviously important to succeeding in school and in later life. But I have also come to recognize how important it is to ignore some things.

I suppose “ignore” has a negative connotation, so let me clarify. You need to better allocate your limited time, attention and focus to find the most factual, practical and useful knowledge needed to make informed decisions and choices.

A simple example is screen time. Whether the screen is a big flat one on the wall or a small one in your hand, there is more information available there than anyone can view, process or use. The current information age is a time of scrolling and interruptions.  You need to be effective at ignoring information that turns out to be wrong factually or just irrelevant. If only filtering information was as easy as turning on a filtration system in your home.

In my lifetime of teaching, I know that teachers are always working with students doing research to be more intelligent and effective at filtering out the irrelevant and inaccurate.

All that sounds good and uncontroversial – but it’s not. Social media has come under increasing pressure to be better at filtering just as we have taught students, but every filtering method has been criticized. They have tried using trained humans but that is slow and not very efficient. They have tried using algorithms and technology but that isn’t always as smart as a human though it is faster and more efficient.

Bias also enter the equation. This past week Facebook and Twitter CEOs faced tough (and sometimes ill-informed) questions about how they operate. Do the platforms filter with a bias that disfavors conservatives and Republican and President Trump, or is that where the most disinformation is generated?

“The net is designed to be an interruption system, a machine geared to dividing attention,” wrote Nicholas Carr his book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains.

Can we unplug from the Net and media? Of course, you can. You can hide away in a cabin on a remote mountaintop, but is that a way to live? It’s an extreme reaction.

It makes more sense to improve your filtering, but that isn’t easy. There is no course you can take or an easy list of ten things to do. You can start by knowing that you can’t read every article, tweet, email, Facebook or Twitter post.  Can you resist? You’ve probably heard the acronym FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) about the actual physically measurable “fear” people get when they see that badge that says they have unread, unseen content. It’s hard for some people to just ignore or delete without checking.

Carr’s book covers research that shows that this flood of information is more than our brain is configured to handle. TMI – Too Much Information – is literally the case. We take it in and relevant or not our brain tries to categorize and store it. It gets filled like that storage room with a lot of stuff that we don’t need. It’s easier to clean that storage space than clean your brain.

I have taken to watching the half-hour evening news rather than putting on a 24-hour news channel that repeats the same news over and over and adds in a lot of opinions. Do I miss some news? Yes, but I get the major stories and if I want to know more about a story I can easily find it online.

In the same way that tobacco companies used formulas and advertising to keep people wanting more, networks and media platforms work hard at keeping us looking.  When one streaming episode or movie ends, another one is queued up for you to continue. When you search for a certain book, video or topic, the Net will certainly suggest others. Going down that rabbit hole is very, very easy. As the title of a book by Adam Alter puts it, Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked.

“Behavioral addiction” is what makes us be obsessed by text messages, emails, likes, and feeds and makes us binge video. We average about three hours each day on our smartphones. Back in the 1950s, 60s and 70s there was a lot of research and talk about how broadcast television was hurting kids learning.  If all that research had some validity, imagine what Millennial, Generations Y and Z, Zoomers and Generation Alpha kids are doing to their brains and learning by the amount of screen time and information they consume.

What can we do? Alter suggests that we reverse engineer behavioral addictions. Good luck with that.