Social Networks and Social Anxiety

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Anxiety manifests in several forms including panic disorders, generalized anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorders and phobias, which include social phobia or social anxiety. Approximately 15 million Americans suffer from social anxiety. It involves persistent fears of embarrassing or humiliating oneself in a social situation, and panic or anxiety when thrust into social situations in which fears can be realized. As a result, people with social anxiety avoid social situations, which can interfere with their relationships and normal life functioning.

Social anxiety often forms during the teen years, a time in which kids become self-conscious and are at greater risk of suffering long-term effects of negative comments or embarrassing situations. This is especially true for youth that have a disability or other trait that sets them apart from their peers. Social anxiety can also develop as the result of a traumatic event or embarrassing social experience.

Because social networking doesn't require face-to-face interaction or leaving one's home, one might think that it is a viable way for people with social anxiety to form positive connections with others and perhaps even reduce their fears. However, studies reveal mixed results about the impact of social networking particularly on teens. Because interactions occur behind a cyber curtain, teens often say things they wouldn't to someone's face, which can increase the occurrences of teasing, bullying and humiliation, all of which can lead the victim to develop social anxiety.

Social Networking as a Positive

The growth of the Internet and the ability to connect with others socially over a computer has led researchers to wonder about the impact of social networking on individuals suffering from anxiety. In the case of people suffering from social anxiety, they already isolate themselves and have difficulties at school and work. The question then becomes, "Can online networking help social phobics build relationships and improve their mood or will it lead to further isolation and Internet addiction?"

A recent study suggests that there is little relationship between depression, anxiety or social fearfulness and time spent interacting with others online. The authors added that chatting online might allow people with social phobia the ability to practice social skills in a non-threatening setting that they could then use in face-to-face social situations.

Another study reported that social networking online led to, in fact, a decrease in feelings of loneliness and depression, while also increasing a sense of social support and self-esteem. This research supports the idea that online networking could help social phobics build relationships and develop social support. This idea suggests that lonely people can successfully use the Internet to make personal connections and improve their moods. However, this study also revealed that Internet usage negatively affected their daily functioning.

Social Networking as a Negative

The research indicates that while the Internet may allow people with social anxiety to build relationships and decrease depression, it doesn't cure the problem. In fact, depending on the user's experience, it could exacerbate the problem. While the Internet is a source of human connection, it is also ripe with opportunities to become embarrassed or harassed. In fact, 58 percent of kids report having been the victim of cyberbullying and 53 percent report having said something mean or hurtful online.

A 2008 study found that victims of cyberbullies had increased risk of social anxiety. Cyberbullies spread lies and rumors, trick people into sharing personal information that is then used against them, send mean messages, and post pictures/videos online without the victim's consent. This bullying occurs through social networking such as Facebook and YouTube, but also through email and cell phone texting.

Cyberbullying creates many of the same situations that people with social phobia fear, such as embarrassment and humiliation. In many ways, cyberbullying is worse than traditional face-to-face bullying because it reaches a much larger audience. The results of cyberbullying can lead to social anxiety or an exacerbation of social anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, and suicide.

Even without bullying, communicating online can involve others seeing and judging online content, which continues to put people with social anxiety in a position of fear of feeling criticism. A recent study of Facebook illustrated that social networking can lead to the comparing of lives to others and feeling inadequate as a result, which can lead to lower self-esteem. People who do complain online tend to alienate others. Instead of garnering sympathy, they are more likely ignored.

Kids and Social Networking

Use of social networking by children or teens, regardless of whether they suffer from social anxiety, needs to be monitored by an adult to avoid the development of social anxiety, depression, or low self-esteem. Suggested strategies include:

  • Not allowing a teen to have a computer in his room. Instead, keep the computer in a central location so that parents can monitor activities.
  • Require teens to "friend" and give access to parents who can see what types of interactions are occurring.
  • Discuss cyberbullying with teens and encourage them to refrain from bullying and to report it when they see it or are a victim of it.
  • Encourage teens to keep personal information to themselves. If they wouldn't want the whole world to know something or see it, they shouldn't share it online.

Although social networking might alleviate some fears and allow people with social anxiety to make friends, it doesn't solve the underlying problem and could put them at risk to experience situations that lead to anxiety. As a result, social networking shouldn't be used to treat or cope with social anxiety. The best solution to manage social anxiety is through the traditional interventions, such as relaxation techniques, cognitive-behavioral therapy and in certain cases, medication.

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