Risks of Compensatory Internet Use

Article summary by Hillary Greene



People with social anxiety frequently engage more often in online communication methods than in-person interactions and often feel more comfortable with such online versus live communication. However, a recent study cautions socially anxious individuals about the potentially harmful effects on one’s well-being of relying primarily on internet based versus face-to-face communication for social contact. See details below, which highlight recent research on internet use and well-being among persons with social anxiety disorder  (Markovitz, Anholt, & Lipstiz, 2012; Weidman et al., 2012).



What is the social compensation hypothesis? 

Prior research that has examined internet communication among persons with social anxiety disorder supports the social compensation hypothesis, which is a possible explanation for patterns of internet use in this group. The social compensation hypothesis describes how persons with social anxiety disorder might compensate, or make up for their fears of evaluation and struggles in social settings by using internet communication as an alternative to in-person communication. In other words, internet communication allows such individuals to cope with their social fears while still pursuing contact with others. This hypothesis emphasizes that individuals with social anxiety might prefer online communication because online settings decrease the pressures associated with non-verbal cues and with expectations for immediate responses, which commonly are experienced in offline settings.

What were the goals of this study?

In general, the purpose of this study was to improve understanding about the effects of online communication on the social behaviors and well-being of persons with social anxiety disorder. Specifically, this study sought to address two questions about internet communication among persons with high levels of social anxiety: does increased comfort with online communication lead to increased self-disclosure and how do anxiety, internet communication, and personal well-being relate to one another?

How did this study address these goals?

To address these goals, the researchers conducted the study in two parts using undergraduate students as participants. In Study 1, participants completed several question forms, or measures, that asked about their online and offline communication and their level of self-disclosure, their level of comfort or disinhibition, and their perception of social pressure in both of these settings and asked about their level of social anxiety in general. In Study 2, participants completed several measures that asked about their internet usage and experience, their mood or level of depression, their quality of life or satisfaction across multiple areas of life, and their level of social anxiety in general.

What were the main findings of this study?

Overall, this study found that persons who report high levels of social anxiety experience higher levels of comfort, are less inhibited, and engage more in self-disclosure when using online compared to offline communication methods. In general, individuals with high social anxiety feel less social pressure with online versus offline communication compared to those with low social anxiety.

As expected, this study found that social anxiety was associated with compensatory internet usage, which included using internet communication to avoid in-person interaction and using internet communication as a positive replacement for live interaction. Individuals with high social anxiety had lower self-esteem than those with low social anxiety and compensatory internet usage related to self-esteem differently based on one’s level of social anxiety. High compensatory internet use was associated with much lower self-esteem for high anxiety persons and with much higher self-esteem for low anxiety persons. A similar pattern was observed with levels of depression, with high compensatory internet use among high social anxiety persons associated with the highest level of depression in the sample. Conversely, high internet use among low social anxiety persons associated with the lowest level of depression.

Overall, these results indicate that persons with high social anxiety who engage in high levels of compensatory internet usage poorer well-being compared to those who use the internet less for communication and compared to those with low social anxiety.

What do these findings mean for someone with social anxiety disorder?

The findings of this study emphasize the importance of considering how the communication and socialization methods you use might affect your well-being if you are someone who has high levels of social anxiety. If you have high levels of social anxiety, internet communication methods might feel much more comfortable to you than face-to-face interactions and you might actually self-disclosure or open up to others more often in these online forums than you would face-to-face. However, relying heavily on internet communication to compensate for live interactions might negatively affect your well-being, especially in the areas of self-esteem and mood.

Another important point to consider if you have high social anxiety is how you might use internet communication to help facilitate face-to-face interactions. Another recent study suggests that communicating via the internet with someone before communicating in person might help lower social anxiety when you actually meet that person (Markovitzky et al., 2012). Therefore, internet-based communication may be a helpful first step before pursuing in-person interaction with others. Overall, if you are someone with social anxiety disorder who frequently relies on the internet to communicate, you might consider using the internet in moderation and to use the internet to help foster in-person connections, such as with classmates, coworkers, friends or family.

Where can you learn more about this research?

The main study discussed here is available for free through this link:




Markovitzky, O., Anholt, G. E., & Lipstiz, J. D. (2012). Haven’t we me somewhere before? The effects of a brief internet introduction on social anxiety in a subseqeunt face to face interaction. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 50, 359-365.

Weidman, A. C., Fernandez, K. C., Levinson, C. A., Augustine, A. A., Larsen, R. J., & Rodebaugh, T. L. (2012). Compensatory internet use among individuals higher in social anxiety and its implications for well-being. Personality and Individual Differences, 53, 191-195.



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