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Barbara Holm Headshot

Social Anxiety and the Internet

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The other day I was at a huge (okay, normal-sized, okay, maybe small) party and I didn't really know a lot of the people there that well, so I started to feel really anxious and almost claustrophobic from the tension. I just kinda stood against a wall and didn't talk to a lot of people. And when someone came to talk to me, I think I was so nervous and stuttering that I really either scared him off, or made him fall in love with me, depending on whether it was a full moon. I left shortly after, went home, and then spent about five hours on Facebook instant message and Gmail chat and texting people, so glad I wasn't dealing with a large group dynamic.

The dramatic surge in communication technology has an impact on the way my generation interacts. I'm 25, and I barely remember how I made friends before the internet. And I definitely don't remember how I formed thoughts before Twitter. (But don't worry, I'm sure my goo-goos and gagas were hilarious witticisms.) Communication scholar Marshall McLuhan said that 'new technology' -- aka the Internet -- has created a "global village." In his book, Understanding Media, McLuhan said that the massive transportation of instant information, thoughts, and ideas to anywhere in the world has turned the planet into one tiny village that interacts almost like a family. That explains why my YouTube commenters sound like a drunk mountain-dwelling uncle. The Internet is a safe barrier where people can feel free to say whatever they want. If we're all connected when we're alone in a dark room lit up by a computer screen, then why would we ever go to a bar?

Social media allows us to interact with others, but under very controlled safe circumstances. A study in Southern Communication Journal said that people with social anxiety are more attracted to compulsive Internet use than people without social anxiety. Social anxiety disorder is literally a phobia and the Internet eliminates some of the risk of embarrassment, panic attacks, and cute boys making fun of you for getting Morph the X-Men's origin story wrong. Additionally, I think that growing up in a world shaped by the internet has given rise to more shyness and phobias. Are we so pampered by technology that we now have no need for human interaction?

I'm not saying that this is a bad thing. Without instant messaging online maybe I would never speak and I would turn into a mute that reinvents smoke signals to communicate. The Internet is a sanctuary for shy people. I definitely think that living in a world where encyclopedias of knowledge about everything are at our fingertips is a wonderful advantage. I think that being able to think something and then instantly it's out there in the universe for millions of people to read is amazing. I think that the rise in communication technology has led to a hyper-awareness of everything in popular culture. But I definitely worry sometimes that being raised by the Internet has impaired my interaction abilities, (even though the Internet did teach me how to shave my legs, play catch, and about the birds and the bees sexing routines). When I'm in groups I feel a sensory overload, which is weird, because as I'm writing this I literally have twelve tabs open on my browser. Even weirder, seven years ago I probably wouldn't have known what tabs were.

Internet addiction has been labeled as a symptom of social anxiety. That makes sense. The Internet is a form of escapism (albeit one not as sexy as vampire books), but it might be a cause of anxiety as well. The mass spread of instant ideas has created a generation of uber-smart, information addicted, socially tense people with incredibly short attention spans who get bored super -- sorry what's that, a cookie? I don't really know how to fix it for myself. I guess the one answer would be to stop sitting hunched over my laptop writing about it, and go out and talk to people, but I think I'd rather just Google it.

I don't think it's really a problem now. In fact I'm very grateful for my friend, the computer, and her wing-man tactics. (I don't mean that the computer helps me date. I mean I Googled whether or not to get a fairy wing tattoo and it told me not to. High five, computer!) I am worried about the social, cultural and political eventual effects of living in a generation where it's easier to Facebook chat someone than to talk to them, a generation where we can easily tweet to thousands of people, but it's so hard to make eye contact in a group of more than six people. This shift in group communication dynamics may affect future generations' ability to act in groups, which might lead to a rise of individualistic identities, meaning we're less group-minded. I'm worried that being raised in a world where we're encouraged to say horrible things on reddit, YouTube, Twitter, but say very little to nothing out loud in groups, may cause us to develop not quite as altruistic, warm, and loving as I would like to think that humanity is capable of being.

As a shy, anxious person who is grateful for the emotional-castle-moat of the Internet, I hope that as communication technology evolves, we use it to spread warmth in addition to using it to defend ourselves. I'm so used to hiding behind my computer that I forgot what I was hiding from.

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