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Losing FOMO and Finding JOMO (Technical Report)

There is a movement to help regular people control their technology use; it aims to give people JOMO, or the Joy of Missing Out.



Fear and Joy

JOMO is a play on the phrase #FOMO—the Fear of Missing Out—that became synonymous with the continuous, impulsive checking of our devices that was observed in society when cellphones became widely owned. Achieving JOMO may be difficult on your own. If, for example, you are someone who might qualify has having a technology addiction—gaming, smartphone, social media, whatever it may be—then it might not be possible to achieve a technology-free lifestyle even for a few days.


Organizations have popped up that, for a fee, will help you find your JOMO, usually in a nature-based setting. One of the primary means of finding JOMO, according to people involved in the movement, is to get away from technology and into nature, often referred to as digital detoxification (digital detox, for short). People from all walks of life, from regular people like you and me to famous celebrities, are heeding the call to nature—and away from their electronic devices. Based on the premise that nature is good for our brains—supported by some research—individuals and groups are going into the wilderness, going on nature walks, and attending “tech-free” camps.


What Nature Does to You

"Campers appear to revert to some of their most basic, pleasurable activities"

Because you cannot see what your friends are up to by putting away your smartphone and laptop for the weekend, you may worry that you will become stressed out and will want to pull out your hair; but, anecdotal reports from people who go to digital detoxification camps prove the opposite. After an initial period of confusion of what to do with themselves, campers appear to revert to some of their most basic, pleasurable activities. These include talking to other people (real talking, i.e., face to face), spending time in self-reflection, and pursuing their favorite hobbies (that is, non-technology-related ones). The reports paint a picture of a simplified form of living that is fulfilling and anxiety-free, in other words the much sought-after state of JOMO.


A well-known research study from the University of Michigan showed that walking through nature was better for learning than taking a walk through a busy city street. The explanation was that the regions of the #brain that help us learn are overstimulated by busy street activity even when we are passively engaged in the action around us. Digital detox advocates wonder whether this same logic applies to the constant stimulation from electronic devices.


Research also suggests that getting away from our technology can improve our empathy, although the effects were shown only in children. About 50 6th-graders in California went away to an outdoor camp where no personal technology was allowed and face-to-face interactions were encouraged through structured activities and arrangements. For instance, the kids lived together in group housing. Before the trip started, the children were tested on their ability to recognize emotions in other people’s faces. They were tested again at the end of the trip. Another group of children, the same grade level and from the same school, did not attend the camp and were given the same tests at the same time periods. The results showed that the campers improved more during the time period of the camping trip than the non-campers, which the researchers interpreted as showing that being away from technology caused the kids to spend more time in face-to-face interactions, making their ability to read people’s faces get better.


Permanent Changes May be Necessary

"The environment contains the cues that contribute to excessive and possibly dangerous technology use"

Some researchers, commentators, and lifestyle-change promoters argue that abstention—also known as reverse bingeing—doesn’t work. There is a lack of evidence showing that going to camp has long-term positive effects, and the logic of abstention is not right. For example, it used to be that airlines passengers were asked to turn off their cellphones and other electronic devices for the duration of a flight, providing a brief, albeit forced, break from technology. But rather than shaping people’s behaviors so that they had less desire to use their devices, this break always ended up with the passengers madly powering up their phones in order to check their messages as soon as the plane landed.


Further, if a person goes to a digital detox camp and then returns home after visiting a camp, nothing about the person’s environment has changed. The environment contains the cues that contribute to excessive and possibly dangerous technology use. Instead, those on this side of the argument advocate for permanent changes to a person’s habits through moderation and mindful technology use. Being mindful means, for example, inserting an additional step between hearing your phone beep and grabbing the phone to check your messages, as suggested by a recent book about distraction. The purpose of the additional step is to think about whether it’s a good time to check the phone (e.g., are you driving your car?).

(Photo by ChrisA1995, Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0))

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