Regardless of stereotypes, the symptoms of social anxiety can be hard to pin down because it looks different for different people. Its WebMD definition acknowledges that different people who suffer from it will find different social situations more or less challenging. For instance, someone can have social anxiety and be a confident public speaker but dread talking to strangers one-on-one.
Taking this basic fact into account, we should understand that people with social anxiety won’t behave in similar ways on social media. Some studies, however, have come to some general conclusions. A 2013 Association for Psychological Science article summarizes a gradual change, over time, in psych literature’s ideas about the benefits and drawbacks of internet/social media use for people with social anxiety.
Two decades ago, the summary says, the internet was believed to be a useful tool for those who dealt with social anxiety. Social interaction would be easier online, it was hypothesized, because there were no audiovisual clues for people to worry about. More importantly, the ability to remain anonymous or create fictional identities was seen as potentially liberating for social anxiety sufferers. In this environment, social faux pas could be made without consequence.
The current consensus, according to the article, is less clear. Social media platforms, not forum posts or comment sections, are now the main mediums for online communication. To participate in these platforms require the establishment of an identity, and frequent use requires the curation of that identity. Interactions on social media, unlike those in comment sections, do have consequence.
Furthermore, this Psychology Today article notes a negative correlation between social media use and face-to-face interaction with friends. It’s worth it to consider whether this effect is especially pronounced for sufferers of social anxiety. If they are using social media more often, are they using it in place of face-to-face interaction? What does that mean for their ability to build meaningful relationships?
Though social media seems to reduce the barriers to communication — a socially anxious person doesn’t have to worry about looking nervous or their palms sweating while getting in touch with someone on Facebook — it’s worth asking whether it can help people with social anxiety establish anything more than weak ties.