Problematic Internet Use among Persons with Social Anxiety Disorder

Article summary provided by Hillary Greene



Social anxiety disorder might be a risk factor for developing problematic internet use, often called ‘internet addiction,’ and some findings suggest that problematic internet use may serve to worsen or reinforce social fears and avoidance of face-to-face social interactions (Lee & Stapinski, 2012). Families and supporters of persons with social anxiety disorder should increase their awareness of the potential risks of internet addiction in their loved ones with social anxiety disorder in order to help monitor for and safeguard against such risks when possible. See details below, which reflect information presented in a recent study (Lee & Stapinski, 2012).



What is problematic internet use?
Problematic internet use, often called ‘internet addiction,’ has been defined in a variety of ways, but one commonly accepted definition described by Davis (2001) is the cognitive-behavioral model of problematic internet use. According to this model, using the internet to “regulate unpleasant moods, becoming attached to the social benefits the internet provides, and perceiving more interpersonal control online than offline” contributes to compulsive internet use, signs of withdrawal when offline, and negative psychological, interpersonal and occupational effects for such persons when not using the internet.

How is social anxiety disorder related to problematic internet use?
Research on problematic internet use has identified multiple personal factors as potential contributors or risk factors for this difficulty, including depression, loneliness, aggression, substance dependence, and shyness. Researchers have suggested that individuals with these characteristics might be more likely to be isolated socially in offline environments and therefore might turn to online communication for social contact. In particular, persons with social anxiety disorder often feel more comfortable using online communication methods versus face-to-face interactions due to high levels of fear and anticipation of threat and negative evaluation associated with live interactions. Furthermore, research has established a clear connection between social anxiety and problematic internet use but little is known about the specific factors involved in this connection.

What were the main findings of this study regarding social anxiety and problematic internet use?
Overall, this study found that social anxiety related to problematic internet use among a sample of adults and that higher levels of social anxiety corresponded to higher rates of problematic internet use. This study also found that even when the effects of depression, stress, and general anxiety were accounted for first, social anxiety still predicted significant problems with internet use. In other words, in this study social anxiety uniquely contributed to problematic internet use beyond the effects associated with more general mood and stress-related difficulties.

Additional findings showed that persons with social anxiety perceived themselves as having poor quality relationships in both online and offline settings. Furthermore, results indicated that persons with social anxiety feel a greater sense of control in online versus offline interactions. Conversely, these results indicated that the perception of having a high likelihood of threat in face-to-face interactions leads to problematic internet use among persons with high social anxiety. In other words, social anxiety associated with high expectations of threat involving face-to-face communication directly leads to problematic internet use.

How can families use this research to supports individuals with social anxiety disorder?

This research is important for families who might be concerned about the level of internet communication in which their loved one with social anxiety disorder engages. This study reinforces prior findings that highlight the association between increasing levels of social anxiety and increasing rates of problematic internet use. This study also highlights specific risk factors to consider when monitoring or supporting someone with social anxiety disorder to help him or her to prevent or to cope with problematic internet use. In particular, families should increase their awareness regarding the general relationship quality their loved ones with social anxiety experience with face-to-face and internet contacts and the general level of use and preference their loved ones have for internet communication methods. Families should be especially aware of internet communication reliance among younger persons who might be more susceptible to problematic internet use.

Internet addiction among those with social anxiety disorder has been associated with personal, relational, and occupational difficulties directly and might even worsen the individual’s social anxiety in general. Therefore, if families are concerned that their loved one might be at risk for problematic internet use or might already show signs of internet addiction as described above, then they should communicate with the socially anxious individual about these concerns and should collaborate with a mental health professional to help address the potential problem.
Where can families learn more about this study?

The study discussed here is available at this link:

Lee, B. W., & Stapinski, L. A. (2012). Seeking safety on the internet: Relationship between social anxiety and problematic internet use. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 26, 197-205.

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