Jennifer Golbeck Ph.D.

Jennifer Golbeck Ph.D.

Your Online Secrets

Anxiety

Social Anxiety and Internet Use: What We Know

An overview of 26 years of social anxiety and online behavior research.

Posted Aug 05, 2016

 chasealias (ds pollack)/flickr
Source: chasealias (ds pollack)/flickr

A lot has been written about people with social anxiety and what they get out of using the Internet (as well as what they avoid by using it). A new metareview of the last 26 years of research details the findings from 22 different studies that had over 13,000 subjects among them [1]. Here's a summary of what we know.

The Internet is a more comfortable place for people with social anxiety

Communicating online is easier because we can more easily control the impression we make. Communicating in text format eliminates the worries that may come with audio/visual communication. Appearing on camera can cause anxiety that we will be judged on our physical appearance or mannerisms; this is gone from most online interactions. The asynchronous nature of the interaction means that we can pause before answering - for a moment or for hours - allowing us to have a more carefully constructed response, thus reducing anxiety. Access to anonymous communication online can also help since no one will know who the person is if they do something wrong.

People with social anxiety don't spend more time online

There is almost a cliche about the socially anxious person huddled in the dark in front of a monitor, spending all their time online and avoiding the real world. It turns out this is not true. The results are mixed between studies, and there is no concrete, consistent evidence that people with social anxiety spend any more time online than others.

Social Anxiety is linked with problematic internet use

People with social anxiety are more likely to become anxious when their internet access is interrupted. They are also more likely to develop unproductive thoughts, like "I'm only respected online", which can actually make social anxiety worse. They may also neglect some face-to-face relationships in order to nurture the online relationships. 

Takeaways

Internet use is definitely not all bad for people with social anxiety. Indeed, it may help them build and maintain social connections by removing some of the anxiety-causing aspects of face-to-face interaction. And, while people with social anxiety are not necessarily online more than others, they may develop an unhealthy relationship with the technology. The research that has been published over the last 25 years also has many contradictory findings and relies on very different measures and methods. Much more work is necessary to understand the nuances of how these users benefit from and are impacted by the internet.

[1]  Prizant-Passal, Shiri, Tomer Shechner, and Idan M. Aderka. "Social anxiety and internet use–A meta-analysis: What do we know? What are we missing?." Computers in Human Behavior 62 (2016): 221-229.