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How You Engage: Study Looks at the Nexus Between Social Media and Social Anxiety

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The blue and white Facebook
Psychology PhD student Nicolette Carnahan examines anxiety and online engagement.

Is social media an oxymoron? Forums like Facebook and Twitter are labeled “social media,” but perhaps they aren’t exactly social activities. That’s part of what PhD student Nicolette Carnahan considered in her recent study on social anxiety and social media.

Carnahan, who’s working on her doctorate in clinical psychology at American University, researches issues of social anxiety. A key factor in provoking social anxiety, she says, is fear of being evaluated and judged by other people. People with high anxiety levels find comfort in social media interactions, she says, because they think it reduces the threat of a social situation.

“If you’re on Facebook instead of talking face-to-face with someone, it’s less anxiety-provoking. So it temporarily decreases that anxiety, but it actually ends up having longer term negative effects,” she says in an interview.

That’s one component of this timely, 170-participant study. Through the Anxiety Disorders Research Lab, Carnahan worked on this project with other psychology graduate students, and her adviser, professor Michele Carter.


Research Findings


For the study, researchers sent a questionnaire to AU undergraduate-participants to gauge their thoughts on topics perceived by some as controversial, including abortion and feminism, gun control, and Black Lives Matter. Some of the student-participants were then brought to the lab for in-person discussions. While researchers already knew the student’s views from the questionnaire, a fake participant—actually, another researcher in the lab—would question and argue with the student about these sensitive topics. Carnahan and other researchers would check the student-participant’s levels of anxiety before the conversation and afterwards.

Researchers conducted a similar process online, where student-participants were shown Facebook posts to see how they’d respond and to assess their level of anxiety.

Their findings? While discussing a controversial subject, participants with low levels of social anxiety showed no major difference between anxiety levels online versus in person. For those low-anxiety people, there was also no significant difference in anxiety levels based on topic.

But for participants with high levels of social anxiety, there was a significant difference: They became much more anxious when having these conversations in person. However, this was only the case when discussing Black Lives Matter. For high-anxiety people, there was no significant anxiety level difference in talking about gun control online versus in person.

Carnahan noted another important finding, which is consistent with earlier social anxiety literature. “We found significantly greater levels of preference for online social interaction for participants with high social anxiety than those with low levels of social anxiety,” she says.


Social Anxiety and Social Media: It’s Complicated


Since there are increased rates of anxiety and depression among youth right now, anxiety has become a popular research subject in psychology. With young people—or, frankly, all people—spending so much time on iPhones scrolling through social media feeds, critics are blaming Facebook and Twitter for stunting social skills and spreading alienation and unhappiness.

“Typically, social anxiety develops when you’re a child, and [kids] are not anxious because of social media. But social media has increased, just in general, a sense of being not good enough. You’re seeing other people’s lives, and it provides snapshots of what looks like someone else’s perfect life,” she says.

Carnahan says social media doesn’t cause social anxiety, but people who are socially anxious gravitate toward screen and smart-phone interactions. She says people who struggle with social anxiety tend to have poor social skills. To combat their anxieties, they rely on safety behaviors—such as avoiding eye contact—which can impact how people perceive them and make social interactions worse.

“Those safety behaviors don’t come across online. The [online interactions] end up being potentially less anxiety provoking, because you’re not actually getting the negative feedback,” she says. “But, long term, you’re not exposing yourself, and the treatment for social anxiety is exposure. So you’re literally sustaining your anxiety by just hiding behind the computer.”


The Trouble with Online-Only


Carnahan believes this research does have relevance for college undergrads. She worked at the AU Counseling Center last year, and she noticed that social media can be a problem for first-year students.

“It’s hard because you do have that connection with your high school self, and your high school world and your old friends. You want to talk to them online and be there,” she says. “I think for college students, it’s important to get out there; it’s important to try. If you feel really shy or socially anxious, that exposure is going to be better—even if it feels uncomfortable at first.”