This paper will explore the effect of social anxiety on online self-disclosure. Social anxiety is “a state of anxiety resulting from the prospect or presence of interpersonal evaluation in real or imagined social settings.” Thus, socially anxious individuals tend not to disclose, or reveal, personal information to their conversational partners because they are worried about the impressions they are making on others. Research shows that computer-mediated communication (CMC) stimulates self-disclosure, primarily through reduced cues and controllability. Thus, CMC increases disinhibition, allowing for those with high social anxiety to feel more comfortable disclosing personal information over a mediated online channel, than face-to-face (FtF). However, on the internet, a continuum of privacy exists, from public forums to private chat rooms. Research finds that high social anxiety individuals primarily self-disclose in private online environments, even though reduced cues and controllability exist in public online environments. Despite CMC providing individuals with high social anxiety a safe environment to self-disclose —which allows them to create and maintain fulfilling interpersonal relationships—, research has found that compensatory internet use —using the internet to compensate for lack of face-to-face interaction— is associated with diminished well-being. Therefore, CMC can encourage self-disclosure in socially anxious individuals and aid in the facilitation of interpersonal relationships, up until the point where it replaces FtF interaction, in which it no longer is beneficial to the individual.
Online self-disclosure is when an individual divulges personal information about themselves to another individual or many individuals through a digitally mediated channel. According to Walther's Hyperpersonal Communication theory, two attributes of online communication encourage individuals to engage in more intimate self-disclosure: reduced cues and controllability. Reduced cues refer to how CMC allows individuals to communicate without having to manage auditory, visual, and contextual cues (e.g. facial expressions, eye contact, etc.), contrary to FtF where one must manage those cues and follow FtF norms, such as conversational turn-taking. Walther further posits that CMC “frees-up” more cognitive resources allowing an individual to focus primarily on message creation. Controllability refers to how CMC can be asynchronous giving individuals more time to create, edit, and deliver messages than during FtF communication. Reduced cues and controllability associated with CMC can reduce and in some cases, eliminate the constraints that exist in FtF communication. Therefore, CMC diminishes individuals’ concern for self-presentation or impression management, creating a sense of disinhibition that facilitates self-disclosure.
Social anxiety is defined as anxiety resulting from “the prospect of interpersonal evaluation in real or imagined social settings, when individuals are motivated to make a particular impression on the person to whom they are speaking.” Individuals with high social anxiety struggle in social situations due to their preoccupation with their self-presentation and others’ judgments of them. Individuals suffering from social anxiety may struggle to create and maintain satisfying interpersonal relationships because their desire to make their intended impression often exacerbates their anxiety, resulting in a lack of self-presentational confidence or a sense of being closed off. In addition, their social anxiety may cause them to avoid social situations that they perceive could lead to negative evaluations of themselves, serving to isolate them. Further, socially anxious people often adopt self-protective behaviors to avoid negative social outcomes. One of the dominant self-protective behaviors is a reluctance to self-disclose.
Self-disclosure is defined as “the revealing of personal and intimate information about oneself to a targeted individual.” Self-disclosure is a fundamental component of building and maintaining interpersonal relationships. Revealing personal and intimate information contributes to feelings of closeness and intimacy. Additionally, “the amount of self-disclosure has been found to be a predictor of increased likability of a person from the first impression to subsequent meetings.” Prior research has found that individuals suffering from social anxiety disclose less than non-socially anxious individuals, and often information that is disclosed is either superficial or extremely negative. Research also indicates that socially anxious people were more conservative in their levels of intimacy and did not match their conversational partners’ disclosure levels. Due to this, socially anxious individuals tend to have less fulfilling interpersonal relationships, even though they desire these relationships to the same extent as non-socially anxious individuals. Therefore, CMC provides a potential solution for those with social anxiety to fulfill their desires for satisfying interpersonal relationships.
Robert Arkin posits a motivational theory of social anxiety that seeks to explain why these individual’s self-presentation differs from non-anxious individuals. Essentially, Arkin suggests that most people in social interactions are concerned with seeking approval and adapt their self-presentation to achieve that goal, whereas anxious individuals are primarily concerned with avoiding social disapproval. While the goals may sound as if they are just phrased differently, the difference in the goals is significant and affects the type of self-presentation styles that an individual employs. Because anxious individuals are focused on avoiding disapproval instead of gaining approval they employ a protective self-presentation style, explaining why socially anxious individuals often withdraw from social interaction or simply avoid it altogether. His theory further supports the notion that socially anxious individuals are fundamentally concerned with impression management. A study found that face-to-face socially anxious subjects disclosed at a moderate level regardless of the level of disclosure of the confederate they were paired with. The subjects were concerned with impression management during the experiment which caused them to employ self-protective behaviors that lead to their conversational partners liking them less and experiencing more discomfort. This study suggests that the self-protective behaviors socially anxious people employ don’t achieve their goal of avoiding social disapproval and reinforce defeating interpersonal patterns.
As previously discussed, CMC has attributes that suggest it could help socially anxious individuals overcome some of the obstacles they encounter in FtF environments. The two attributes —reduced cues and controllability— of CMC are particularly helpful in terms of impression management. During CMC, an individual doesn’t have to be concerned with their facial expressions, body language, or their tone or pronunciation. Context cues, for example, social status cues like clothing or hygiene, are also reduced or eliminated during CMC. During CMC the primary concern is with what to say and how to say it. In addition, the asynchronicity of CMC gives these individuals more time to focus on message creation and delivery than exists in FtF environments. With fewer communication channels (eye contact, facial expressions, etc.) to regulate, impression management is much easier in CMC. Interestingly, research has found that perceptions of the attributes of CMC affected disclosure more than the actual attributes. In the associated study, adolescents who “perceived the reduced nonverbal cues and controllability of IM (instant messaging) as more relevant were more disinhibited when using IM and subsequently self-disclosed more easily.”
The perception of the disclosure-inducing attributes of CMC seems to be related to the results of another study that states that socially anxious individuals primarily disclose in private arenas of CMC (e.g. private chats). This particular study was interested in the continuum of privacy that exists when communicating through Facebook (e.g. private chats to public statuses) and whether the attributes of CMC that usually encourage self-disclosure are at play along the continuum. The results found social anxiety “to be positively related to the perception of value of the reduced cues and controllability in both private and public forms of Facebook communication,” however, these attributes did not lead to self-disclosure in public forms of Facebook communication. This suggests socially anxious individuals recognize that reduced cues and controllability exist in both public and private forms of CMC, but in private CMC the attributes allow for better impression-management than public. For this reason, it is unlikely that a socially anxious individual would use public settings of CMC (like Facebook posts, tweets, etc.) to self-disclose or try to create and/or maintain interpersonal relationships.
There are two main, but contrasting theories surrounding social anxiety and online self-disclosure: social compensation theory and rich-get-richer (RGR) theory. Social compensation theory posits that socially incompetent individuals (i.e. “anxious”) would engage in more online disclosure to compensate for the lack of comfortability in FtF disclosure. While RGR suggests that socially competent individuals would engage more in online disclosure because they already feel comfortable with self-disclosure, offline and online. While there is research to support both theories, much of the anecdotal evidence supports the social compensation theory. One study of high school students found significant positive relationships between (1) not feeling comfortable with talking FtF and feeling more comfortable talking online with other people and (2) social anxiety surround FtF interaction and feeling more comfortable texting someone. Another study of high school students found that “in comparison with nonsocially anxious adolescents, socially anxious adolescents more strongly believed that online communication is effective for developing breadth and depth of communication.” A study of slightly older participants (university students) found that social anxiety was positively correlated with online self-disclosure and negatively correlated with offline self-disclosure. This supports the notion that individuals higher in social anxiety are more likely to self-disclose online than offline. Much of the research that supports RGR measures self-reports of online self-disclosure, instead of socially anxious individuals’ perceptions of CMC and disclosure. Essentially, socially anxious individuals prefer and would be more likely to disclose information online, than offline, although some individuals may still employ self-protective behavior and not disclose in either environment. In addition, they recognize CMC as another avenue to create and maintain the interpersonal relationships they desire, but not all socially anxious individuals will use CMC to disclose personal information or to compensate for lack of interpersonal fulfillment.
Socially anxious individuals who do use CMC to compensate for FtF interaction and in-person relationships may result in poorer well-being. A study of university students found that socially anxious individuals use the internet both as a substitution for FtF interactions and to avoid FtF interactions, which can be referred to as “compensatory internet use.” In this study, this type of internet use was associated with low self-esteem levels for socially anxious individuals. In addition, the results found that socially anxious individuals who used the internet to avoid FtF interactions had higher scores on the Beck Depression Inventory-II depression scale. The study puts forward several explanations for these results. The first being that the social comfort and self-disclosure experienced by socially anxious individuals in CMC may not translate to the fulfilling interpersonal relationships they crave. Another explanation is that even though CMC has disclosure-inducing attributes that don’t exist in FtF, these individuals may still be employing self-protective behaviors (e.g. superficial self-disclosure) that impede connection and closeness with their conversational partner. Despite CMC being a conducive environment for disclosure among socially anxious individuals, using CMC to compensate for FtF interaction and in-person relationships fail to improve well-being and can lead to lower self-esteem levels and higher levels of depression.
The two key attributes of CMC produce an environment for socially anxious individuals that create a sense of disinhibition, which in turn facilitates self-disclosure. Research has found that individuals with social anxiety recognize the value of CMC in creating and maintaining interpersonal connection and closeness. In theory and in practice socially anxious individuals do disclose more online than offline and feel more comfortable disclosing information online than offline. There is evidence to support that this phenomenon primarily exists in private online communication and not in public online communication (i.e. Facebook status). Future research should focus on how the continuum of privacy in CMC effects self-disclosure because privacy settings are not simply “private” vs. “public.” Users can block certain individuals, create private “stories” or posts for certain individuals (e.g. “close friends” on Instagram) or even start group chats. Specifically, it would be interesting to look at a new social media phenomenon, “finstas” or fake Instagrams, which have been defined as “a ‘fake’ Instagram account that some people maintain in addition to their real Instagram account (rinsta) for a more authentic performance.” These accounts are private and those who want to see the contents must request to follow and the owner of the account has the ability to accept or reject the request. This adds a new level to impression management and it would add to existing research to see how socially anxious navigate the world of " While CMC can be a great resource for socially anxious people to feel interpersonally fulfilled, solely relying on CMC for interpersonal relationships and evading FtF interaction will lead to a reduced sense of well-being. CMC can be beneficial for socially anxious individuals who use it to feel comfortable disclosing information in an effort to create and maintain interpersonal relationships. However, the benefits exist on a continuum, the more compensatory the usage is, the less beneficial.
This piece was composed in a Communication class on emotions. I took the emotion of anxiety, specifically social anxiety, and reasearched and analyzed its effect on online self-disclosure.
This piece demonstrates my ability to use research to answer a question and support my answer. It further demostrates that I can write academically and properly cite and use sources.