Shimi Kang M.D.

The Dolphin Way

Overcoming Social Anxiety in a Social Media World

School and social media don't mix well together.

Posted Sep 14, 2015

It’s that time of year again. Now that you are back in school, thinking about all the classes you’ve signed up for and what your schedule looks like, and feeling stressed about upcoming exams this semester, your phone vibrates. You’ve just received a Facebook notification that shows a group of your friends at a party you were not invited to. Your heart drops and your mind immediately starts racing. “What?! Why wasn’t I invited? I introduced them to each other! Well, I probably wouldn’t have gone anyway, but still...”

According to the statistics gathered from an annual survey conducted by the Cooperative Institutional Research Program at the University of California Los Angeles: “In 1987, 37.9% of incoming college students socialized at least 16 hours per week with friends... by 2014, 18% of students reported spending at least 16 hours per week socializing with friends (an all-time low).” On the other hand, the percentage of students dedicating six or more hours per week to social media has jumped from 19.9% to 27.2% in the last decade alone, and the results say it all. In 2014, the self-rated emotional health amongst freshmen was reportedly the lowest they’d ever seen since the survey began 50 years ago. Kevin Eagan, the program’s director, believes the increase in stress and other mental health disorders in students today is directly influenced by the decline of face-to-face socializing—a notion supported by Dr. Victor Schwartz, lead psychiatrist and medical director at the Jed Foundation, whose research has found a strong link between the amount of time we spend on social media and depression.

Social media: Friend or Foe?

So what happens when the tools that are supposed to connect us, end up segregating and making us feel excluded? There is no denying that we live in a digital age. Today, rather than interacting face-to-face, many children and young adults opt to communicate their thoughts and feelings through 140 words, emojis, and shared pictures instead. This subsequent overuse of social media, and underuse of real-world skills has resulted in difficulty for many to socialize meaningfully, hindering their ability to make connections and new friends, and ultimately leading to feelings of loneliness, social anxiety, and depression.

Based on a study conducted by Dr. Ethan Kross, founder of the Emotion & Self Control Laboratory at the University of Michigan, and research by the University of Missouri, there is a direct connection between heavy social media usage (specifically Facebook), and feelings of depression and envy—another major issue observed in prevalent social media use amongst youth. The prescribed antidote? Face-to-face contact and human connection. The feelings of inadequacy, jealousy, anxiety and depression are often a result from the daily unhealthy self-comparisons people make to their peers and strangers online. Unfortunately, in a world where everybody puts their best foot forward online, and has access to tools that filter out their flaws, young people end up comparing themselves to unrealistic representations of others that simply don’t exist in the real world.

There is no doubt that the evidence is all there—when it comes to social media, less is definitely more. Now, how do we go about breaking the habit?

Shifting Priorities

Social media is distracting, we’ve all been there. What starts as a check-in on Instagram or Twitter quickly leads from one thing to the other, and all of a sudden 2-3 hours have gone by! Instead, try breaking out of the habit of picking up your phone and checking your newsfeed whenever you’re bored, and take the extra time to focus on yourself. What else could you be doing, or needs to be done right now? Even if you have nothing of urgency to complete, take the opportunity to explore the world around you, or simply sit quietly with your favourite beverage or meal and really savour the moment.

At the start of every day or week, write down a list of the things you have and want to accomplish, whether it’s getting a head start on a project, meeting up with people you haven’t seen in awhile, or making time for extracurricular activities, then set out to achieve those goals every day prior to going online. A study done by the University of Innsbruck in Austria observed that the more time a person spends on Facebook, the more they feel they are wasting their life away. Use social media as a supplementary tool that is secondary to your real-life experiences, and only reward yourself with it once you’ve accomplished everything else you set out to do that day. Over time, the uplifting feeling of accomplishment will greatly improve your overall happiness and feelings of fulfillment.

Making Friends Outside of Social Media

There’s a feeling of excitement when you receive a great response from your followers, or when the likes on a recent post hit the double digits. How could there possibly be anything wrong with this form of interaction? But what about the times when social media isn’t quite as rewarding? The times when it taunts you with all the seemingly cool things everybody else is doing that you aren’t, or all the things you may not have.

If you are feeling excluded because you’re seeing your friends out with other people online, use that as a reason to expand your social circle offline. It’s okay to branch out independently, and be friends with different people. Instead of scrolling through endless pictures of other people’s amazing experiences and the parties that they are attending, sign yourself up to meetup groups, pick up a new hobby or take part in extracurricular activities that are available at school. Not only will participating in group activities help build your confidence, but as your real life relationships develop, you will become more engaged with what’s around you and less concerned with what is happening online.

Don’t Snapchat Your Way Through Life - Live it!

Go out and really live your life! Experiencing life through a phone lens is almost like watching a movie. Do you truly experience an incredible moment if it’s through a camera? Not only should you go out, expand your interests and try new things, but try to keep your social media account out of it entirely - or at the very least, while you’re trying said new activities. Be present and make the memories that’ll last you a lifetime.

Not only will it be fulfilling, but when you live your life in real time and not through a screen, you are more connected with what you are doing and how you are feeling, relieving any feelings stress or anxiety you may be hanging on to. On another positive note, garnering those genuine experiences will make it much easier to connect and share in social situations or when encountering new people.

Disconnect Completely from Time to Time

Try disconnecting from your social media platforms from time to time by setting a specific time you are allowed to go on every day and for how long, or shut off from it completely, starting with a couple of days per week to entire weeks every month. It doesn’t necessarily mean shutting off from every social media platform at once, start where you feel comfortable, and work your way up from there. While it may be uncomfortable initially, you’ll quickly find alternative ways to occupy your time, and likely feel a great sense of relief as the pressure of constantly being connected is lifted off your shoulders.

At the end of the day, only you can shape the person you are, the experiences you garner, and who/what you invite into your life. Use social media as a tool to share, get inspired and feel good about yourself, but if it’s been having a negative effect on you lately, don’t be afraid to take a break from it. We all need a little room to breathe and get a fresh perspective now and again. Give yourself space to grow, and discover who you truly are. Remember that what you see on social media isn’t necessarily a true depiction of a person’s life. Once the weight’s been lifted and you are no longer negatively distracted by social media, you’ll be happier, less anxious and feel more motivated to take life by its horns.