The Internet Mistake You Don't Know You're Making (and why it might cause social anxiety)

Friday, February 21, 2014 by Meg   •   Filed under Anxiety

Social anxiety, or social phobia, involves intense fears related to social events, like meeting new people or giving speeches. While most people have some nervousness in new social situations, those with social phobia may experience panic attacks or anxiety so intense that they will avoid the situation entirely. 

It's the difference between feeling butterflies in your stomach when going on a first date and calling to cancel said date because you spent the last three hours throwing up just thinking about it.

While there are many triggers to social phobia, researchers at Michigan State University report that the media multitasking--like checking emails while looking at Pinterest--may be making these symptoms worse1

So...I shouldn't update my blog while checking my email, making eggs and singing "Iron Man" for my kids? I am so screwed.

What does social phobia feel like? 

  • Intense self-consciousness in normal situations
  • Constant fear of judgment or embarrassment
  • Rumination (constant worrying) about upcoming social events
  • Anxiety or panic in response to social situations, such as increased heart rate, trembling, trouble breathing, tightness in chest, upset stomach or dizziness (more on anxiety symptoms here)
  • Avoiding social situations
  • Hiding in larger groups
  • Substance use before or during social activities to decrease anxiety

Not fun, right? 

The Michigan State study found that media multitasking in particular triggered higher levels of social anxiety and depression, even after controlling for personality traits like neuroticism, extraversion and overall media usage. So, even people without a history of mental health issues or moodiness (neuroticism) still got anxious after media multitasking. So did those who were more outgoing in general (extroversion), and those who had less overall time at the computer screen. 

This may be due to forcing connections with larger numbers of people than our brain is predisposed to handle. Some researchers, including Christakis and Fowler, authors of Connected, report that human beings are hardwired to connect with no more than 150 people at a time due to the size of early hunter-gatherer groups2. Too much of this type of interaction seems a likely trigger to being overwhelmed, particularly if you're fliping back and forth from Pinterest to Facebook to email to Twitter.

It could also be that internet trolls be actin' cra-zy.

Christakis and Fowler also report that because of the tendency for human beings to emulate the behavior and emotions of those around them, mass numbers of people can find themselves "emotionally synchronized" in a short time frame (pg47). In other words, we feel what those around us feel. Online, we see a hell of a lot of agitated people, making it easy for those negative emotions to spread. 

This may mean that getting into a heated political debate while fielding emails from people who think you're a total jackass might not have as much benefit as you would like it to. It could also mean that debating the benefits of Food Network versus Thug Kitchen for recipe advice might trigger some anxiety as well, particularly if you are debating via email while scrolling to find something to make for dinner. 

True story.

For many with (or without) social phobia, disconnection from electronics may be one of the easiest things one can do to decrease anxiety symptoms related to this phenomenon.


Now, in the words of Thug Kitchen, I am going to go "brunch my ass off."3 Because Food Network ain't got nothing on those foul-mouthed culinary geniuses. 

(That's right, Judy. Suck it.)



Topic-Relevant Resources

Exploration of social connection and the way networks shape our lives

When Panic Attacks
Detailed overview of cognitive behavioral techniques for changing negative thought patterns

The Mindfulness Solution
Meditative and cognitive techniques for everyday use

Brain Lock: Free Yourself from Obsessive-Compulsive Behavior
Useful information and tools for addressing obsessive or scary thoughts and the behaviors that go with them.

From Panic to Power: Proven Techniques to Calm Your Anxieties, Conquer Your Fears, and Put You in Control of Your Life
Techniques for reducing anxiety and living a happier, healthier life.