The internet can be a great way to meet people and develop new relationships, especially for those who struggle to make friends offline. The internet allows people to connect to others with similar interests and experiences across the world, and the relative anonymity allows for greater self-expression. For people who feel like they can’t be themselves in their offline life, the internet can provide a safe refuge where it’s possible make friends without having to worry about being judged for who they are, what they like, or their appearance.
This is particularly useful for the socially anxious, who fear social situations due to intense worry about being evaluated or criticized by others. The internet can be a great outlet for socially anxious people because it provides them with the opportunity to present themselves exactly as they want with less fear of being judged. Communicating over the internet provides people with the unique ability to carefully choose and edit their words, and to take as much time as they need to respond during conversations. They don’t need to be self-conscious about stammering, sweating, or fidgeting because no one can see or hear them, and the anonymity of the internet allows them to share their thoughts and feelings with less fear of being rejected. In fact, many socially anxious people think that the person they are on the internet is more indicative of their “real me” than the person they are in face-to-face interactions.
The internet can be a great resource to help reduce social anxiety, but it can become a problem when using the internet becomes a “safety behavior”. As an example, a common thing that socially anxious people worry about is being judged for blushing during a conversation. In order to prevent the possible judgment, socially anxious people will engage in safety behaviors such as wearing makeup or high necked shirts to conceal the blushing, talking about how hot the room is, or saying that they aren’t feeling well. This temporarily helps the person feel less anxious. However, when socially anxious people do well in conversations, they attribute their success to the safety behaviors rather than learning that no one actually saw or minded that they were blushing.
A similar thing can happen with online communication. All the successful interactions people have online won’t help improve their “real life” social anxiety if they begin to think their success was due to being able to edit their words instead of letting their online successes help increase their confidence in their social abilities. The idea that they need the internet to succeed in social settings can lead people to develop a problematic over-reliance on the internet for social interactions and mood regulation. This can then lead to problems in their real life like withdrawal from in-person interaction and internet addiction.
The internet can be a great tool for the socially anxious. It can be incredibly relieving to be able to order pizza online rather than having to call or go to a store. But while this is wonderful, online interactions don’t actually treat social anxiety unless they help the person grow in confidence and teach the person that their fear of social evaluation is unfounded. Otherwise it just serves as a means to avoid or temporarily reduce anxiety.
The typical method used for treating social anxiety is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). This form of therapy helps social anxiety sufferers recognize and challenge the negative thoughts and unhelpful behaviors that contribute to their anxiety. If you suffer from social anxiety, there are several online courses and apps like Anxiety Coach and iCBT that provide treatment for social anxiety using the advantages of internet-based communication.
Amichai-Hamburger, Y., Wainapel, G. & Fox, S. (2002). “On the internet no one knows I’m an introvert”: extroversion, neuroticism, & internet interaction. Cyber Psychology & Behavior, 5(2), 125-128.
Lee, B.W., & Stapinski, L.A. (2012). Seeking safety on the internet: Relationship between social anxiety and problematic internet use. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 26,197-205.
Bargh, J. A., McKenna, K. Y. A., & Fitzsimons, G. M. (2002). Can you see the “real me”? A theory of relationship formation on the Internet. Journal of Social Issues, 58(1), 33-48.