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Shy girls no more: Facebook eases social anxiety

Facebook may be a “stepping stone” to help shy girls improve social life offline, according to new research from Duke University.

“The study is a positive note for those who have social difficulties, like shyness or anxiety. They may feel that Facebook is helping them improve their social life and communicate more easily,” explains Developmental Psychology researcher, Megan Golanka, who presented the research at the annual Society for Research and Child Development (SRCD) conference in Montreal. 

The study

In the first longitudinal study of its kind, researchers from Golanka’s lab surveyed 55 women at two different ages: first as adolescents and then as adults.

At age nine, the participants engaged in a “Girl’s Friendship Project”, where they filled out questionnaires describing how they adjusted in social settings. For example, were they shy, anxious, or depressed. For a different perspective, the researchers asked friends and teachers to fill out questionnaires, which helped determine the participant’s behaviour in social settings. For instance, did the girls show pro-social behaviour like leadership skills or were they more anxious. 

When the girls reached early adulthood (ages 22 to 24), the researchers asked them to complete an online questionnaire about why they use Facebook.  Golanka and other research assistants in the lab collected data by analyzing the women’s most recent 30 Facebook posts.

The researchers found strong correlations between personality type and reasons why the women used Facebook. 

Girls who self-reported social anxiety symptoms when they were younger used Facebook to learn about social events, search for new friends and romantic partners, and to feel more connected to people – reasons which also facilitate their social life offline. “Facebook can help give people practice in communicating with other people online,” explains Golanka, adding that it helps give people more time to think about how to respond or deliver a message to others. 

In contrast, girls who self-reported being more social when younger used Facebook to complement their social lives. “Girls who had more positive peer relationships [when they were nine] are probably already feeling pretty successful with their social lives. For them, Facebook complements their social lives,” explains Golanka.

Facebook as a positive social tool

Some parents may wonder about the implications of using social media, and whether Facebook helps or hinders social relationships in real life. But Golanka says that parents may not have to worry. “We’re seeing continuity between the offline and online context. Children, who were successful with their peers offline, are probably going to be successful with their peers online as well.”

She adds that the social media tool is positive for the user regardless of their purpose.  “If you’re someone who has positive relationships, you’re going to use it to enhance your already active social life. For girls who have social difficulty, they will use Facebook as a tool to improve social life, and gain social skills.”

Nira Datta

Medical Writer/Editor, AboutKidsHealth

 To learn more, see the page on Anxiety in the Health A to Z section of AboutKidsHealth.