Fear of FOMO, or why I have a bad case of Instagram anxiety

Being 21 means that I’m cool, right? I greet every day like it’s the first day of the rest of my life, which it pretty much is? I go out drinking every night, and I have boundless energy and confidence? Sadly: no. The truth is, I spend around a quarter of the 24 hours available to me scrolling through my Instagram feed. Instead of being at a party, I’m looking at another one unfold, like a stray cat gazing through a window in the rain. Instead of doing my homework, I’m checking out the celebratory dinner for somebody else’s internship. Social media is constantly informing me of a 20-something life that I am just not living, and it appears I’m a captive audience.

Like most of us, I follow more people online than I actually know in the everyday sense. There’s of course my 10 besties — and then about 87 others, a mix of old-school friends, casual acquaintances, and celebrities. They all seem to be making significant progress in their lives (especially the celebrities). Date night with my favorite boy #truelove. The BEST vacation ever #turksandcaicos. Me, on the other hand? I’m developing progressively worse eyesight and restless thumb syndrome (it’ll be a thing, just you wait).

Sometimes I feel like modernity offers me little more than a heightened sense of paranoia (and way too many cords), leaving me distressed by the idea that my virtual friends are having way more fun and enjoying phenomenally more success than me. Wow, Cheryl’s outfit does look bangin.’ (I wonder where she bought that dress?) Jill’s friends sure worked hard on that surprise party. (No one’s ever thrown me a surprise party.) Kylie Jenner’s dinner looks so much better than mine. (Because, obviously.) And they were all so much cuter as kids (#tbt)!

Of course, I’m writing this like I’ve somehow conquered the need to show off how my day is on fleek. Far from it! I regularly upload pictures of my own lunch to Instagram, and then proceed to share on Twitter and Facebook, allowing everyone to bear witness to my incredibly yummy eggs Benedict. And I derive plenty of satisfaction from the attendant “likes” and retweets as well.

As we know, Instagram takes the best aspects of our lives and amplifies them. In response, we sometimes panic, wondering why our coffee doesn’t also have an artistic heart in the froth. When I put it like that, it sounds trivial, but we almost-adults already have the terrifying challenge of attaining the highest possible grades so that we get the best first grown-up jobs possible and can enter comfortable, committed relationships in fantastic apartments while traveling the world and eating healthy. These days, growing up is on display, for everyone to see, which in turn has ratcheted up the pressure to accrue all these little happinesses along the way.

I’m not saying Instagram (et. al.) invented competition — people have always compared themselves to their friends — only now, that comparison can happen on a daily, if not hourly, basis, which means so many more opportunities for feeling inadequate. This isn’t just jealousy I’m talking about here, although the green-eyed monster is certainly a factor sometimes. I think fear would be the more appropriate word: fear of missing out on riding elephants in Thailand or of never achieving your dream job (#FOMO). Last year I left Manchester to spend a lovely break in Paris, and yet I was still wondering why I wasn’t living it up at Coachella. And social media doesn’t stop at helping us connect with others — it encourages us to level up. I once spent $60 on tea. TEA! Because if Millie Mackintosh drinks it, I should too.

Living in a world that isn’t constantly plugged in seems unfathomable now, but it was actually a thing once upon a time. My parents managed to enjoy their youth without taking a photo of every moment and passing the Polaroids around. Are me and my friends going to drown in our own narcissism? Is the boundary between individual identity and personal branding going to disappear completely!?

OK, I’m starting to sound hysterical. I realize life only moves in one direction, there’s no halt to progress, and so on and so forth. I myself will be graduating in less than four months. This major life event is scary to even contemplate, and recently I’ve been getting a little stressed about what my plans for the future actually are. So sometimes it’s nearly all I can do to keep the phone from dropping on my face while I’m lying in bed scanning the news of other people’s triumphs. I guess what I really wonder is: How am I ever going to be content with what I have when I am constantly being reminded of what I don’t?

But I’m not the first person to ask that question. I won’t be the last to find an answer. Turn off the phone — that’s the simple answer. The harder one involves realizing that social media is a monolith of happiness. I’m seeing the same moment over and over again performed by whoever happens to be enjoying it at the time. I need to find the genuine article, I need to feel satisfied with my life even when there’s no camera (or selfie stick) to capture it. Every now and again the heart in the froth is going to be for me — and maybe then I’ll decide to keep it that way.

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