The Age of FoMO

The Age of FoMO

Our Brains on 24/7 Alert

By Sharon Begley

July/August 2017

To identify what it is about online experiences that makes them compelling to people whose cerebral hemispheres are firmly planted in the land of the sane, researchers are taking a page from video-game cyberpsychology. For just as video games have psychological hooks that make people feel compelled to play, so do online experiences.

Start with the fact that the cost in time and effort of a single online “transaction”—a click, a view, checking Instagram or your Facebook news feed—is so minuscule as to be unmeasurable. It’s often so low, in fact (I’m just waiting to give the barista my order), as to be negative. That is, not texting or checking for texts or reading your smartphone screen feels like a greater burden than doing so. “The time-scale on which you work with online technology is central to making it compelling,” The University of Sheffield’s Tom Stafford told me. “It’s always on, and time is sliced into small bits. What else can you do in five seconds that’s interesting? So why not check your phone?” This is a large part of why “using the internet can be compulsive.”

That suggests that the drive behind use of the internet, especially via smartphones, is the result of feelings and thoughts more akin to those in obsessive compulsive disorder—in particular, compulsive checking—than to addiction. “The underlying motivation to use a mobile phone is not pleasure,” as the addiction model says, “but rather a response to heightened stress and anxiety,”…

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