Social (Media) Anxiety

A while ago I was trying to weasel out of a catch-up I’d planned with her friend. I was tired, had a lot on, and was worried that this meeting was the straw that would break the camel’s back. I had the urge to lie about another commitment, but I had been practicing acting with integrity and so decided – I’ll just send her a message to let her know that I’m tired and have a lot on, I can still make it if she would be really disappointed, but if she’s not too bothered, perhaps we could make it another time. I was curious, why don’t I just call? It’s a pretty complex message to convey via text. Wouldn’t talking be simpler?

Messaging technology, such as texts and social media posts (including Facebook and Twitter), have made communication easier than ever. There are benefits of messaging over phone communication. Certainly, something like group chats would be difficult with the telephone. Also, many times we want to pass messages in quiet places (like at home at bed time) or want to contact people who can’t message back straight away. However, there has been a trend toward using messages over telephone, even when verbal messages would be more efficient and more effective. Why?

People are social animals. We crave social connection, validation and attention. On the flip side we fear rejection, judgement and abandonment. Social Anxiety Disorder develops when thoughts, beliefs or images of social failure are so strong that they cause anxious avoidance and/or other unhelpful coping behaviours. Most of us, diagnosis or not, experience some form of social anxiety. Messaging technologies exploit these fears by giving us a seemingly safe way to communicate rapidly. Messaging seems safe because we don’t see the face or hear the voice of the person we are talking to, so we don’t risk awkwardness or facial signs of disapproval such as anger or sadness. Also, we feel that we have more time to think of something charming or interesting, we can answer at or own time, or never at all.

The thing is, though, messaging is far from safe compared to verbal communication, especially for people with mental health conditions. For example, the recipient of a text can use any tone of voice when they read in their head. Check for yourself, pick one of your text chains with a friend at random. Now read out all of your messages in a sarcastic or condescending voice. Sounds awful, right? Many, many friendship blow-ups and family feuds have started on the basis of misinterpreted text. You think you’re being playful, they think your being a d*ck!

Also, unlike verbal communication, the things you say via message are potentially out there forever. Even transient technologies, like Snapchat, can be screenshotted and used down the track. Recently, a number of high-profile politicians and sportspeople have suffered due to their digital past catching up with them. Every day, many people are having their previous comments used as a tool with which to be bullied and harassed.

A final reason that messaging is less socially safe than talking is same reason that makes messaging so easy, and apparently safe. Because you don’t see or hear the people you are interacting with, you can act in a way which would be antisocial via another method. You can be unduly harsh, or ghost someone, or target someone in a cruel way. Its easier to treat someone poorly that you aren’t immediately seeing or hearing the response from.

So here we are: Feeling safe by communicating via text. And here we are: Feeling offended by how we’re being treated via text. Humans are prone to make choices that privilege our short-term comfort over our long-term interest. So, we avoid awkwardness and disapproval in the moment at the risk of damaging our future relationships.

I sent my friend a long-winded text. Then I engaged in a passive aggressive tug of war that took way longer than it needed to. And I ended up going after all, begrudgingly. Feeling a little bit more irritated with her than I was before.

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