The Connection Between Social Anxiety & Internet Addiction

When you see a teenager or young adult on their cell phone, what are they doing? Are they making phone calls? Are they playing a game with a friend? Or are they texting or communicating with someone in an app? Often they are interacting on social media, using technology to make their voice heard. For teenagers and young adults, social media is their primary method of communication. The question is, how many are addicted to the Internet due to social anxiety?

Fear Over Real Life Communication

For many of the Clients I have treated for Internet addiction, they have problems communicating with others in person. They are afraid they will not know what to say in a real life conversation, due to limited experience. Most have had few real life friendships. 

Growing up with the Internet has changed much about how teenagers and young adults interact. In their experience, there has always been the Internet. If they wanted to learn something or communicate with someone over a long distance, the Internet was the solution. 

As a result, teenagers and young adults have not had the need to talk in person as generations before. They could talk online, in chat rooms, or text messages, or social media apps. The lack of real life communication has limited their ability to feel comfortable talking in person. Given a lack of communication skills, many teenagers and young adults have turned to the Internet exclusively for social interaction. 

A sort of fear develops, telling them not to communicate with others, as it is too difficult or not important enough to try. This fear eventually becomes social anxiety, in which they do not want to be around people. Social anxiety limits the creation of friendships, romantic relationships, and hampers career aspirations. 

Online Communication = Control

When you have a conversation face to face, or in person; control over the conversation goes both ways. One person talks, the other listens, then back and forth, repeating until the conversation ends. Healthy communication involves a sharing of control, where one person talks, then the other. Communicating online is different, as there is no direct back and forth communication. 

If someone texts you, you have a choice. Do I respond now, or do I wait? Maybe I will ignore the text because I am busy with something else. Maybe I don’t want to answer because I am upset with the texter. Regardless of the reason, control is with you, not the person who sent the text. 

Control is a vital part of online communication. For someone who has social anxiety, control is primary. Why communicate face to face, when I can choose what I say and how I say it online? If I have social anxiety, then I need time to craft responses, as to not look stupid or inept. When receiving text messages, I can take all the time I want to make a proper response. In the end, control reduces social anxiety. 

Real Life Conversations Are Boring

Most teenagers and young adults find it difficult to sit and focus on one activity at a time. They often multitask and do two or more activities at once. While watching a movie, they will be on social media. While doing homework, they will listen to music. Most rarely do one activity at a time, and when they do, they find it boring. 

When having real life conversations, it is common for them to text or be on the phone while having the conversation. You can see this in most public settings when people are talking while also looking at their cell phones. Real life conversations are not as stimulating as they were in the past, which leads to more rude behavior. 

Why be in person with someone if you are going to be on your phone the entire time? Many of my Clients with social anxiety have told me they see no point in being in person with a friend, as everything they could do in real life they can do online. Often this is fear talking, in which they later admit they want real life social relationships, but they do not know how to make them. 

Does Social Anxiety Lead to Internet Addiction or Vice Versa? 

In truth, it depends on the person and their experiences. For many, there has always been a fear of communicating with others. This fear may have been due to bullying or feeling different from others. Communicating online offers a powerful advantage: you can be anyone you want, with no history or expectations. Someone who has had problems making friends in real life can create an online persona that gives them all the friendships they want. They can talk about issues, have their voice heard, and feel in control of themselves and their online life. 

Over time, addiction may form over these feelings of esteem and control. Over time, these feelings become addictive. By creating an online persona, the addict has found a way to satisfy their needs. Take the online persona away, and the addict has no method to meet their needs. 

For most Internet addicts, there is a need the Internet fulfills. This need existed before the addiction, with it becoming the coping skill to provide the need. For someone with social anxiety, the need is communication and belonging. People with social anxiety want to have relationships; they just do not know how to have them without fear. Communicating online helps them work past this fear and gain the relationships they want. 

How Can Internet Addicts with Social Anxiety Reclaim their Lives?

The first step is to admit the addiction and the reasons for it. For any addict to change, they need to recognize their addiction and begin to look inward as to the causes. If social anxiety is one of the causes, it needs to be addressed. One method is to write down their feelings while they are online, to determine what they feel while interacting with others. These feelings can point them toward reasons for the addiction. 

Dealing with feelings of loneliness is one of the ways to combat social anxiety. The addict needs to admit online relationships are not enough to be happy. They need to understand they will always be limited in their interactions online, regardless of the technology involved. A choice needs to be made, to work to gain more real world relationships, or to retreat into the safety of online relationships. 

Interacting in the real world is the next step, as the addict can begin to gain communication skills. Talking more to people already in their lives will help build confidence and experience. Later, when more experienced, more real world conversations are encouraged. One method is to attend groups designed around an interest or hobby. Having something in common can help break the ice. 

For anyone suffering from social anxiety or Internet addiction, therapy is recommended. A trained therapist can help work through social anxiety by finding alternatives to the feelings, as well as dealing with the transition. If you or someone you know has social anxiety or Internet addiction, visit Psychology Today and look for a therapist in your area. 

There Is Hope

Social Anxiety and Internet Addiction are real problems that cannot be ignored. For many Internet addicts, social anxiety plays a large part of the addiction. By working through the social anxiety, the Internet no longer has as much of a hold as in the past. It will take time and effort to change, but in time, social anxiety and Internet addiction can be managed. 

Psychology Today


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Nathan Driskell

Hello, my name is Nathan Driskell and I am a Licensed Professional Counselor – Supervisor in the Houston / Cypress area specializing in the treatment of Internet Addiction & Asperger’s / Autism. I work with children, adolescents, adults, couples & families.

You can reach me at my website or call me directly at 832-559-3520 if you have any questions. Thank You!
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