Impact of Technology & School on Social Anxiety in Adolescents
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders describes social phobia, or social anxiety disorder, as involving a significant fear surrounding social situations in which a person may be evaluated by others. Fear-provoking situations can include conversations with others or circumstances when an adolescent has to perform in front of peers, such as when giving a class presentation. Adolescents who live with social anxiety will either avoid situations that cause them distress or experience these situations but suffer from extreme fear during them. Their anxiety is excessive and interferes with daily functioning (1).
Social anxiety is not uncommon among teens. The research shows that 9.1 percent of adolescents between the ages of 13 and 18 have experienced social anxiety disorder during their lifetimes, and the prevalence is higher in females than in males (2). Certain factors, such as technological advances and school-related stressors can contribute to social anxiety in teenagers, but treatment for this condition is available.
The Impact of Technology on Social Anxiety
Teens today have access to various forms of technology, including mobile phones, video game systems, and social media. All of these technological platforms provide them with the opportunity to communicate with peers, but for some teens, this form of communication can take the place of face-to-face interactions. Unfortunately, this can perpetuate social anxiety.
Experts writing for the respected journal Pediatrics have reported that the research shows that online activity can replace in-person communication, leading to a weakening of social skills. Some teens may use social media to socialize with friends they routinely interact with in person, but in teens with social anxiety, face-to-face interaction may be avoided in favor of the safety of communicating from behind a computer screen. This can cause social anxiety to worsen, as adolescents who communicate solely via social media and other technology sources never have an opportunity to strengthen in-person communication skills (3).
School-Related Factors Influencing Social Anxiety
School can also become a source of social anxiety for adolescents. The hallmark of this condition is an aversion to situations during which one may be subjected to social scrutiny, and the halls of high schools are full of other students who could potentially pass judgment on an adolescent with social anxiety disorder. Students attending large schools may be especially vulnerable to social anxiety, as they may feel like someone is always watching them.
Academic assignments are another school-related factor that can contribute to social anxiety in teens. Some assignments, such as group presentations or public speeches, may create significant worry in students who are prone to social anxiety. In addition, the demands of keeping up with reading, homework assignments, and studying for tests can increase anxiety in general and lead to a worsening of symptoms for those who are already socially anxious. The stress of school may be linked to social anxiety, as a study in the Indian Journal of Psychiatry found that high school students with social anxiety tended to have difficulty coping with the demands of academics (4).
Treatment for Adolescent Social Anxiety
While school-related stressors and technological advances can contribute to social anxiety in teens, there are effective treatment options available. The research shows that cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a highly effective form of treatment for youth with anxiety disorders (5). In this form of psychotherapy, teens can learn to replace negative, unhelpful thoughts with those that are more realistic and adaptive. For example, during CBT, a teen who routinely thinks that others are judging him or her can learn to replace this thought with a more positive thought that does not provoke anxiety.
Some teens who live with social anxiety may also benefit from medication. A class of medications called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) have been found to be especially effective for treating anxiety in youth. Some research shows that the combination of therapy and medication may be more effective than either form of treatment on its own, whereas other research shows that CBT alone can be more effective than some medications (5). Every teenager is unique, and a mental health professional can determine the best course of treatment for each case of adolescent social anxiety.