If you suffer from social anxiety, is chatting with people on-line or posting a status update on Facebook preferable to face-to-face interaction?
Two recent research studies indicate that it’s a mixed bag.
Social anxiety is characterized by fears of being judged by others in an unfavorable light. Such concerns can become debilitating and lead someone to shun most or all social interactions. A person can consequently become caught in a catch-22, in which they deny themselves the chance to receive positive feedback from others, often increasing their sense of inadequacy.
Researchers Aaron Weidman and colleagues hypothesized that communicating with others on the Internet, such as on social networking websites or chat rooms, might be viewed favorably by people high in social anxiety, due to the ability to remain relatively anonymous, have time to write responses (as opposed to “real-time” face-to-face communication), and not disclose one’s physical appearance.
For the first study, a group of undergraduate students answered questions gauging their level of social anxiety, self-disclosure, freedom from inhibition, and decreased social pressure. As expected, the results showed that socially anxious people were more comfortable with on-line communication than with in-person socializing and tended to share more about themselves on-line (and less off-line) than people with less social anxiety.
Next, the researchers investigated how higher levels of online communication affected the level of well-being for those struggling with social anxiety. Undergraduate students completed questionnaires measuring their social anxiety, depression, quality of life, and internet usage. Questions included “My interactions on the Internet have led me to feel more confident and comfortable when interacting with people face to face” and “Spending time on the Internet makes it easier for me to avoid interacting with people face to face”. The researchers were thus able to determine whether on-line communication facilitated or substituted for in-person interactions.
It turned out that individuals with social anxiety who frequently utilized on-line contact at the expense of in-person communication suffered from lower self-esteem and more depression than people who were less anxious socially. In other words, turning to the internet instead of engaging in face-to-face communication decreased well-being for socially anxious people, despite their feeling more comfortable with online contact.
As the researchers stated, several factors may be at play here:
What are some take-home messages?
Heerey, E.A., & Kring, A.M. (2007). Interpersonal consequences of social anxiety. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 116: 125-134.
Melshko, K.G.A., & Alden, L.A. (1993). Anxiety and self-disclosure: toward a motivational model. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 64: 1000-1009.
Weidman, A.C., Fernandez, K.C., Levinson, C.A., Augustine, A.A., Larsen, R.J., & Rodebaugh, T.L. (2012). Compensatory internet use among individuals higher in social anxiety and its implications for well-being. Personal and Individual Differences, 53(3): 191-195.
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Last reviewed: 16 Oct 2013