Image: from Petra Collins’ series Selfie. Image Source.
Back when social media was in its infancy, it was predicted that the internet would be a great equaliser for social anxiety, introversion and shyness. People could speak to each other behind the security of a computer screen. The socially anxious could join mainstream society in flourishing conversation through the veil of anonymity.
But like most broad-brush statements describing the internet as either irreproachably virtuous or the second coming of Satan, this prediction wasn’t right. Nothing’s really anonymous anymore. And the idea of every word we type existing on the internet forever doesn’t lower the inhibitions of anxious social media users. There’s just no evidence that people are more likely to express their #truefeelings online than they are offline.
Most references to social media anxiety actually refer to what can be called status anxiety: an anxious need for validation through the accumulation of likes, shares and comments. However, for a lot of people social media anxiety is a lot like the regular kind. It’s a kind of performance anxiety, not unlike the kind you might get when meeting new people or when no-one laughs at your joke.
Just like social anxiety can leave people hanging on the fringes of conversation, it can also leave socially anxious people hanging on the fringes of the group chat. If you’ve ever felt like this, you’re not alone; no-one ever is in this hyper-connected age. Studies have shown that while introverts use Facebook more, people who are extraverted do most of the posting. The dread comes with social media anxiety is only amplified by the fact that social media is always on. In the real world, we can escape when we need to. Trying to escape from social media seems child-like and petty.
So while there’s long been a stereotype of socially shy or anxious people using the internet to find their ‘real friends’, this just isn’t actually the case for most people. In reality, the people with more offline friends also have more online friends. The internet isn’t the great democratiser it was once thought to have been. Because of this, socially anxious people don’t benefit from self-disclosure on social media the same way their more confident peers do. They’re more likely to be the one standing in a corner at a party browsing their feeds than actively contributing to the conversation.
But what does this mean? Social anxiety, shyness or social phobias lead to young people feeling disconnected—anxiety just isn’t great for building numerous, strong relationships. While boomers might blame this all on social media (or avocado toast), we need to recognise that what happens online doesn’t exist in isolation. It’s easy to blame feelings of disconnect on people looking at their phones rather than talking to their friends. But if we actually want to deal with the root of this disconnect, we need to accept that social media is still just that—social. Talking to people helps build intimacy and positive relationships, all of which allow people feel connected and cared for. And yeah, this extends to building URL relationships as well as IRL.
There’s no clear line between the online world and the so-called ‘real’ world. So maybe we need to treat social media anxiety the same way we treat the regular kind. To do this, though, we need to stop thinking of digital spaces as entirely separate from our physical lives.
Therapists need to understand social media, and understand it well. They need to know the emotions that come with someone reading a message but not replying. They need to understand the social implications of our online lives and treat them as just as relevant and impactful as our other interactions. And we also need to play a part in that. Our feelings are real and valid.
We should face our fears when we can and forgive ourselves when we can’t. Just like in the ‘real world’, you don’t always have to show up to the party. It’s okay to disconnect and sit this one out.