Thursday, 2 July 2015

How social anxiety manifests on Facebook

For many shy people, online social networking sites have an obvious appeal – a way to socialise without the unpredictable immediacy of a face-to-face encounter. However, a new study finds that people who are socially anxious betray their awkwardness on Facebook, much as they do in the offline world. The researchers Aaron Weidman and Cheri Levinson said their findings could hint at ways for socially anxious people to conceal their nervousness and attract more online friends.

Seventy-seven students (average age 19; 77 per cent of them female) completed a measure of social anxiety. High scores were given to those who agreed with statements like "I have difficulty talking with other people" and "I am tense mixing in a group". Before the students left the psych lab, the researchers took screen grabs of their Facebook pages.

Several aspects of the students' Facebook pages correlated with their social anxiety scores. Unsurprisingly perhaps, those with fewer Facebook friends had higher social anxiety scores, so too did those who showed their relationship status as "single" (versus married or status not shown) and those whose page did not show a status update or quote (a sign of self-disclosure). These markers largely reflect offline signs of social anxiety – it's well established for example that people who are socially anxious share less information and tell fewer stories in conversation.

So, socially anxious people betray signs of their personalities on their Facebook pages, but would a stranger looking at their page pick up on these cues? Next, the researchers showed the students' Facebook pages to six other students and asked them to rate the social anxiety of the owners of the pages (if the observing students recognised any of the people in the Facebook pages, they didn't rate those pages).

There was a modest correlation between the observers' ratings of the Facebook owners' social anxiety and the owners' actual (self-reported) social anxiety scores. The observers picked up on some cues correctly, including lack of Facebook friends. But other cues they misread. Observers tended to rate Facebook pages with fewer photos and fewer people in the profile photo as more socially anxious, even though neither of these factors actually correlated with the owners' social anxiety scores. Observers also failed to pick up on the significance of a lack of self-disclosure or the owners' relationship status.

Unfortunately, some of the tell-tale signs of social anxiety can lead shy people to appear awkward and to make a negative impression on people they meet – the very outcome that they fear. These new results suggest the same problem may apply on Facebook, but they also point at a way to help by addressing the signs that strangers will read as evidence of social awkwardness.

The researchers said people high in social anxiety "may benefit from interventions aimed at forcing them to befriend more individuals on Facebook, post more photos of themselves, and to choose a profile picture that depicts them in the presence of others, all of which might cause observers to view [them] more positively as potential friends."


Weidman, A., & Levinson, C. (2015). I’m still socially anxious online: Offline relationship impairment characterizing social anxiety manifests and is accurately perceived in online social networking profiles Computers in Human Behavior, 49, 12-19 DOI: 10.1016/j.chb.2014.12.045

--further reading--
The Psychology of Facebook, Digested

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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