• Genuine social connection, not the kind experienced via text or social media, is crucial for healthy psychological development and functioning. (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
Prefer to text or email rather than speak on the phone? Almost 11 per cent of Australians experience social phobia in their lifetime, and technology is partly to blame.
By
Jo Hartley

21 Feb 2017 - 12:13 PM  UPDATED 12 Mar 2017 - 12:02 PM

As a carefree teenager, Lana Hirschowitz loved to chat on the phone.  She’d spend hours catching up with friends and organising her social life, and thought nothing of making a call.

Since then, things have changed.  If you want to get in touch with Hirschowitz now, in 2017, you need to text her.

“I’ll answer my phone for a few select people, but most friends know if they call me they’ll get my answering machine,” she says.

“Since mobiles, I definitely prefer text to chatting every time and think it’s so much more efficient.”

Hirschowitz admits that she suffers with social anxiety and feels more confident expressing herself in writing rather than speech.  This is particularly the case when making appointments or talking to strangers.

Fortunately for her, the preference to text or email doesn’t affect her ability to socialise with friends in person.

But it’s not the same for everyone.

According to Beyond Blue, almost 11 per cent of the Australian population experiences social phobia during their lifetime, with just under five per cent experiencing social phobia in any 12-month period.

More women than men appear to develop the disorder, and the condition often starts in childhood or adolescence.

Social anxiety is characterised by an intense fear of embarrassment or humiliation, and a fear of scrutiny or evaluation by others.  Consequently, anxiety associated with social contact can reach panic attack levels.

Sufferers of social anxiety will often present with preoccupation or ‘tuning out’ during social contact, frequent excuses to leave social settings, or just general avoidance of these kinds of circumstances

But is the convenience of technological communications exacerbating social anxieties?

Clinical psychologist Richard Wise says that it’s possible.

Social anxiety is characterised by an intense fear of embarrassment or humiliation, and a fear of scrutiny or evaluation by others.  

“Social networking via technology is certainly convenient, but it’s the ‘sugar’ of social bonding because our brains love the quick reward, yet it’s not psychologically nourishing,” he says.

Just like diet, Wise thinks this can be detrimental to people’s health.

He says that genuine social connection is crucial for healthy psychological development and functioning.

“In contemporary life one of the best ways to reduce anxiety is to increase contact with the thing that we perceive as threatening to us,” says Wise. 

“However, technology often provides a way to continue avoiding authentic or intimate social connection, so social anxiety gets worse, social contact appears even more threatening, and avoidance deepens and perpetuates.”

For those from culturally-diverse backgrounds, the appeal of communicating via technology rather than social interaction is perhaps even more prevalent.

With the challenge of language barriers, any means of avoiding a social interaction and the subsequent stress would be highly attractive.

For those from culturally-diverse backgrounds, the appeal of communicating via technology rather than social interaction is perhaps even more prevalent.

“Certain groups such as immigrant or refugee populations are coming into higher levels of contact with hate speech, threats, and prejudice in public,” Wise says.

“Any alternate form of communication that allows these people to avoid public life but to maintain some form of social contact would be preferable.”

So will technology as a form of communication continue to exacerbate or create social anxieties? Wise thinks this is entirely possible.

“As we become more and more disconnected from each other, our anxiety about authentic connection could very well increase,” he says.

“Social networking via technology is certainly convenient, but it’s the ‘sugar’ of social bonding because our brains love the quick reward, yet it’s not psychologically nourishing."

Wise advises that social anxiety becomes a problem when we become isolated, and our mental health begins to suffer accordingly.   

He also suggests that it becomes a problem when we use technology as a substitute for authentic and intimate bonding.

“It comes down to function, really,” he says,

“If technology helps to facilitate your connection with others, great! Keep using it! If, on the other hand, it becomes the instrument of your isolation, it might need a re-think.”

If you’re experiencing social anxiety, talk to your GP about getting a referral to a clinical psychologist who has experience working in this field.

 

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