Embrace a 'digital diet' and the joy of missing out, writes Sharon Stephenson.

It starts when we buy a 7ha lifestyle block an hour north of Wellington. Tired of inner-city living and able to work remotely, we figure we might as well live somewhere cheaper and nicer, where we don't have to fight for a park and can sleep undisturbed by the neighbours' over-enthusiastic stereo.

For reasons far too tedious to go into, we aren't able to permanently throw in the towel on our city lives for another three long months. Instead, we spend our weeks counting down to clocking-off time on a Friday, when we can escape to the lush, forest-smothered countryside where the only noise to break the silence is the wind in the trees and the odd, slightly lost, Canadian goose.

As one weekend rolls into another, a strange thing begins to happen — I stop obsessively checking my phone for emails and mindlessly scrolling through Instagram, Twitter and news feeds. Partly it's because I'm too busy emptying my bank account to multiple tradesmen and bringing some kind of order to the severely neglected grounds. But it's also because the countryside starts to work its magic on me: along with forgetting to put on lipstick and, sometimes, brush my hair, I stop caring what friends, strangers and those on the other side of the planet are having for breakfast, where they're having it and how many "likes" they're getting.


Without realising it, I'm "monitoring my digital diet", as the experts like to say. It's not a total detox — I still spend 20 minutes upon waking and before bed liking or scowling at various posts — but the time in-between is about disconnecting and opting out of the digital circus.

Letting go

Naturally, the Americans have a term for it — the Joy of Missing Out, or JOMO if you prefer the slightly clunky acronym. Basically, JOMO is stepping away from our phones and laptops and letting go of the need to be in the know. It's the pleasure we get from spending time doing what we want and not worrying about what other people are up to.

often described as a backlash against our hyper-connected society, where technology rubs both social and professional activity constantly in our faces, JOMO leads us to spend time in ways we might not necessarily have chosen (hello answering work emails at midnight or gorging on artfully curated, filtered snaps of other people's holidays).

The concept was originally conceived by American blogger Anil Dash, who withdrew from online activity for some time after the birth of his son. Dash, it turned out, enjoyed himself so much he didn't feel as though he'd missed out on anything.

If you think JOMO sounds suspiciously like FOMO, the term that slipped into our vocabulary in 2011, you'd be right.

The official acronym of the insecure, FOMO is the fear of missing out, the belief that everyone is having more fun than us. Which isn't hard when 3.5 million of us, or around 74 per cent of New Zealand's population, are active social media users, posting about everything from cute puppies to the loaf of sourdough they were clever enough to bake.

It's why Kiwis spend around six hours online a day, with a third of that dedicated to refreshing social media feeds.

Jealous, insecure

But all that scrolling isn't exactly making us happy: research shows the rising suicide rate among teenagers may be linked to smartphone/social media use and a survey last year by the UK's Royal Society for Public Health found that Instagram was the worst social media channel for promoting inadequacy, anxiety and depression. The poll of around 1500 social media users revealed that Instagram made them feel inadequate about their own lives and achievements, as well as jealous of other people's lives.

"We see time and again that the constant distraction is making people feel very unhappy," says American behavioural scientist Ashley Williams. "The moments we're spending on our computer or phone slowly accumulate to hours and days, time we're not spending living our lives."

But every trend has a backlash and JOMO is it. And unlike FOMO, which is driven by a negative emotion (fear), JOMO is all about the the positive (joy and its slightly flower-child cousins mindfulness and the power of now).

JOMO, it transpires, is about reclaiming our lives from FOMO. Because, say the experts, when we free up all that competitive and anxious space in our brains, we have so much more time, energy and emotion to give to other priorities.

For Brianna Parker* that meant spending time with her two children. "The day I realised I was addicted to social media was when my 6-year-old daughter asked me to play with her and I refused, because I was too busy flicking between Facebook and Instrabrag, as I refer to it, liking stupid pictures of food and trying not to be jealous of women half my age wearing too-small bikinis."

'FOMO took over my life'

Parker, 40, an Auckland marketing manager, says she first fell under her phone's spell a few years ago when she was tasked with managing her company's social media accounts. From there it spiralled into her own personal accounts; you don't need me to tell you it doesn't end well.

"If you want the short version — it wasn't good," says Parker from her West Auckland home while, on a giant television behind her, the Blues attempt to win a game.

"FOMO completely overtook my life and I was constantly checking my feeds, posting photos of vapid things such as my new shoes or the view from my office. It got to the stage where I would literally hyperventilate if I couldn't refresh my feed."

But when her daughter said to her "You never want to play with me, all you want to do is play with your phone," Parker realised she had to snatch back the reins.

"My children's lives were going on without me while I was more invested in the lives of people online, most of whom I'd never met. A friend sent me an article about JOMO and I realised that was the balance I needed to find in my life."

For Parker, it was about setting boundaries. "It's not that you can't have an online presence or respond quickly to emails. JOMO is about being mindful about it and developing healthier digital habits."

Tipping into addiction

It's probably not surprising so many of us get sucked down the social media rabbit hole: technology companies have spent the past few decades building internet and mobile products that are addictive on purpose. They get us hooked on the likes, the knowing and the busyness of status updates, photos, memes, emails, videos and the latest breaking news, so we go back for more and more.

What is surprising is that the tech industry's recent acknowledgement that obsessiveness can tip into addiction. Earlier this year Sundar Pichai, Google CEO, took to the stage at the behemoth's developer conference with the words "Joy of Missing Out" on the screen behind him. Pichai was announcing a new well-being initiative that aims to encourage healthier technology habits, including a tool which shows usage of various apps, suggests breaks and even spaces notifications, to try and prevent the Pavlovian response to every single message.

Which is all very well, says 24-year-old student and former lifestyle blogger Amber Walker*, but at the end of the day, it's up to us to make a change.

"I was the classic addict," says Wellington-based Walker. "I would post about makeup, clothes and other free things I was sent — which, of course, would earn me more followers and even more products to endorse. But I was spending most of my day writing blog posts and updating Instagram, Twitter, You Tube and Facebook to the point where I was missing lectures, nights out with friends, even my sister's birthday once."

Tired of running on the hamster wheel, last year Walker quit all social media platforms. "That didn't work for long so I slowly reintroduced a couple of them — but with strict boundaries around how and when I use them."

That includes half an hour in the morning, lunchtime and evening. "At first it was incredibly hard not to look at my phone every few minutes. This is the first mindful thing I've ever had to do and it was a real process but eventually I got better at not giving into temptation."

Walker says turning her FOMO to JOMO has helped her regain her life.

"Being a lifestyle blogger was fun for a while and of course all the free stuff was great. But it's all so false — saying publicly you like something when you don't — plus it was a real time and energy suck. Now I'd rather sit in the sun with a good book than log on to social media to see what others are doing. I just don't really care anymore."

* Names have been changed on request.