Anxious people can find their real-world worries mirrored on social media despite the greater anonymity offered in cyberspace, according to research.
The study into young people’s mental health by a London scientist found Facebook users who kept refreshing their profiles for likes and feedback were more on-edge than those who did not.
The NHS defines social anxiety as “a persistent and overwhelming fear of social situations”, which is reported to affect up to 40 per cent of people.
For the study, researchers analysed 61 Oxford University students aged 18 to 25 who already had high and low levels of the condition.
Most participants said they browsed Facebook daily, 60 per cent logged on more than four times every day and nearly a third browsed for over an hour daily.
Each had an average of more than 600 online friends, with nearly a third of the most anxious participants saying they “frequently monitor” for requests and deletions.
Researchers asked them to interact with three hypothetical Facebook scenarios - someone leaving a jokey comment under one of their posts, finding no one has liked a post and discovering someone unfriended them.
The study, led by Sophie Carruthers from Southwark and published in the Journal of Experimental Psychopathology, found participants already suffering high levels of real-world anxiety were more likely to “negatively interpret the ambiguous scenarios” and exhibit “safety behaviours”.
The high-anxiety group reported feeling worse during the tasks as they constantly rated themselves, their photos and life experiences against other people.
Their safety behaviours included rewording posts multiple times, monitoring how others responded to them and mentally storing up things to post later.
The findings suggested anxious people suffer the same worries online as in real life, but they could actually use Facebook as an opportunity to “build deeper relationships” by getting stuck-in to conversations, as no-one sees their blushes and they could take time crafting a responses - hopefully discovering that “people would find them perfectly interesting” despite their fears.
Ms Carruthers conducted the study while at Oxford and is currently a PhD researcher at King’s College London’s Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience.
She said: “We have found using an experimental task and live use of Facebook that the cognitive and behavioural processes that maintain face-to-face social anxiety are also present in online interaction: the online world may not be the safe haven some propose for people with social anxiety.
“Social anxiety online is likely to persist unless people can start to change the way that they use social media.”