Socially Anxious? Here's How to Make Social Media Work For You

Social media use is becoming more commonplace, even among those with social anxiety disorder (SAD). This begs the question—are Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other platforms helpful or not for those who live with social anxiety?

The answer to this question does not appear simple, and may depend on how you use those channels of communication, what role they play in your life, and perhaps even your tendency toward addiction.

Some of the benefits and disadvantages of social media for people with social anxiety are the same as those for those without the disorder.

Below is a quick comparison of how social networks might be helping, or hurting, those with SAD.

Benefits of Social Media for Social Anxiety

Social media isn't all bad. In fact:

  • Social networking sites may help those with social anxiety to more easily initiate and establish social connections.
  • These sites may make it easier for some with social anxiety disorder to become involved in connecting with others, when transportation, isolation, or fear of leaving the house is an issue. 
  • Individuals may experience less anxiety when interacting online versus offline, allowing them to practice social skills in what feels to be a safer environment.
  • Social networking sites may provide an outlet for those with social anxiety disorder to share how they are feeling (on sites like Tumblr). Platforms that allow for anonymous "blogging" may allow those with social anxiety to feel less alone and look at their situation in a more light-hearted way (such as by viewing silly memes like the "Socially Awkward Penguin" series.

    Disadvantages of Social Media for Social Anxiety

    While there are advantages, there are a few disadvantages to consider as well.

    • On sites such as Facebook, it is often expected that users will become friends with people that they know in real life. People with social anxiety may therefore have fewer connections or trouble meeting new people.
    • Individuals with social anxiety who have low self-esteem may express themselves in ways that are not appealing to others, making others less drawn to connecting with them.
    • Friendships built mostly on social platforms may be weaker than those that have had a chance to develop in real life, and lead to less actual bonding.
    • Seeing all of the great things your Facebook or Twitter friends are positing about may make you feel left out or inadequate. Same thing for seeing how many "likes" or comments others get on their posts compared to your own.
    • For those with social anxiety who feel more comfortable behind a computer screen, there may be a tendency to rely too much on social networking sites to the exclusion of trying to make real-world connections.
    • Social networking sites may make you think about all the things you don't have in your life (i.e., a partner, children, job).
    • Constant use of social networking sites may increase stress—especially if you feel the need to be constantly connected to the online world.
    • Use of social networking sites has the potential to make mental health issues worsen. If you are at risk for other issues such as depression and addiction, this can be particularly problematic.
    • Staying up late to use social media could lead to problems falling asleep—and lack of sleep may lead to worsened feelings of anxiety or even depression.
    • Finding out too much about someone before meeting that person (by "stalking" their social networking accounts) could actually lead to increased social anxiety when you finally meet up with that person in real life.
    • People with social anxiety disorder may be at risk for Internet addiction disorder (IA).

      Research on Social Media Use and Mental Disorders

      A meta-analysis of studies about social networking sites and mental illness was conducted between 2005 and 2016.

      In general, both positive and negative correlations were found between use of social networking sites and mental wellness.

      Negative interactions and social comparisons on social networking sites were related to higher levels of anxiety. 

      However, displays of social support and social connectedness on social networking sites were related to lower levels of anxiety. In addition, use of social networking sites was related to lower levels of loneliness, and higher levels of self-esteem and satisfaction with life.

      Findings Related to Social Anxiety Disorder

      Overall, the findings of the meta-analysis suggest that use of social networking sites may have both benefits and detractors for those with social anxiety disorder—a lot may depend on the individuals and how the sites are used.

      However, this review study found that most previous research was based on self-reported data and cross-sectional (at one point in time).

      Specifically, studies suggested that:

      • People with social anxiety disorder were more likely to engage in passive use of Facebook (looking at other people's profiles) and less likely to engage in content production (posting, commenting, etc.).
      • People who brood or engage in anxious rumination may be more at risk for their social anxiety becoming worse when they use Facebook passively. For example, if you sit at home all day reading other people's Facebook posts, not posting anything of your own, not commenting on anyone else's status, your social anxiety may worsen.
      • People may be able to tell on social networking sites that you have social anxiety because of how you interact. Examples include being relatively inactive or withdrawn in your interactions.
      • In general, people with social anxiety are less likely to be users of Facebook but more likely to be users of "micro-blogging" sites such as Tumblr or Myspace. (This may be because it provides an outlet to share feelings in a non-threatening atmosphere.)
      • People with social anxiety do not appear to be more likely to post negative content on social networking sites. However, whether you post positive or negative materials relates to how others respond to you. Positive updates are related to increased "likes" while negative material results in lower positive feedback.
      • People with social anxiety may receive more positive supportive comments from social networking friends and fewer negative interactions. This social support may play a protective role if you have high levels of social anxiety, leading to greater feelings of well-being.

      More research needs to be conducted using real-time data .(people reporting on their actual social networking behavior over a period of time).

      10 Tips for Smart Social Media Use When You Have SAD

      1. Be mindful of the tone of what you share or comment. Staying positive and open is more likely to encourage others to interact with you than negativity or complaints.
      2. Balance time that you spend online with time spent in real-world connections. Or, use the time that you connect online to plan events in the real world.
      3. Practice mindfulness to become aware of your surroundings to prevent social networking from swallowing up your whole day.
      4. Sign up for meetup groups or join groups with people who have similar interests or hobbies to yours. This can be particularly helpful if you have a very limited social circle in real life and want to use social networking to increase your connections.
      5. Remember that what you see on social networking sites is not necessarily a true representation of the lives of people you know. Some people only share the positive, others may only share the negative—try not to compare or think about what others have that you don't.
      6. Use other people's social media profiles to get to know people ahead of meeting them, when they are on their way to becoming your friend. At the same time, don't obsess or spend too much time doing this, or it may backfire.
      7. If you are going to use social networking sites, try not to be a passive user. Don't spend hours looking over other people's posts without sharing anything about yourself.
      8. Take advantage of the extra social support you may receive from your friends on social networking sites. Particularly if you have higher levels of social anxiety, this support may help to improve your feelings of well-being.
      9. Moderate your use. Use social networking as a reward for getting other things done in the real world, to prevent yourself from falling into an addictive pattern.
      10. Have a detached relationship to social networking. Recognize its strengths and weaknesses and never rely on it as your only means of communication.

      A Word From Verywell

      Think about how social media has served you so far. Do you feel more connected as a result of your time spent online, or less connected? Make a list of three steps you can take toward positive change. Yours will be different, but an example might be the following:

      1. Only check social networking sites twice per day.

      2. Share something positive or leave a positive comment at least once per week.

      3. Join a group with like interests that has regular meetups in the real world.

      Sources:

      Association for Psychological Science. Social Anxiety in the Age of Social Networks.

      Kang S. Overcoming Social Anxiety in a Social Media World. Psychology Today Website.

      Maldonado M. The Anxiety of Facebook. Psych Central Website.

      Seabrook EM, Kern ML, Rickard NS. Social Networking Sites, Depression, and Anxiety: A Systematic Review. JMIR Ment Health. 2016;3(4):e50. doi:10.2196/mental.5842.

      Yen J-Y, Yen C-F, Chen C-S, Wang P-W, Chang Y-H, Ko C-H. Social Anxiety in Online and Real-Life Interaction and Their Associated Factors. Cyberpsychol Behav Soc Netw. 2012;15(1):7-12. doi:10.1089/cyber.2011.0015.

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