Home 2018 Collegiate Magazine Technology and social anxiety

Technology and social anxiety

A man texts on the corner of Michigan Ave. and Randolph in Chicago, Illinois, Monday, July 21, 2008. (Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune/MCT)

You: Hey

Friend: Hey.

You: How are you?

Friend: Okay.

You: Are you sure you’re okay?

Friend: Yeah, I’m fine.

You: It doesn’t seem like you are. Is there something bothering you?

Friend: No, really, I’m fine.

This text stream (above) is a good example of whether or not you can read into the sub-language of texts. Unlike normal writing, it is known that some people may use punctuation to express being short with someone. The punctuation added with the notorious “I’m fine” statement almost always gets people to worry if things are truly fine, but why is that?

Mediated communication references all of the ways we communicate through media, some examples would be social media, texting or instant messaging. With each form the same kind of miscommunication happens like the example from above.

Almost everyone has experienced a situation in which they misread a text message or worried for way too long about what someone meant by what they typed. Situations like these are where anxiety begins to appear in the mediated world of communication.

Social media is a beneficial platform for people with social anxiety. Social media gives the user room to control how others perceive them. Users are able to put their “best self” out there which can help to buffer the fear of being negatively evaluated. But unlike being able to control how we are viewed on social media, mediated communication leaves room for uncertainty.

Today, we have hundreds of different forms of chatting with one another including texting, Snapchat, Facebook and Instagram. Each form has its own unique format of sub-language imbedded into it. With these simple differences, it may be hard for users to understand what tone or text language is appropriate between each form. Leaving room for future judgement which can be a sore spot for those who are socially anxious.

Within these different forms of chatting, it is also hard to fully understand what another person may mean by what they sent.

Drew Clay, 34, is a licensed professional counselor in Grand Rapids. He describes a main characteristic of social anxiety, as a fear or trepidation of being negatively evaluated.

Clay’s patients will sometimes ask him, “How do I read this text message?”

The lack of verbal, tonal and body cues make interpretation hard in this case. Instances where a person may use a hint of sarcasm in a text may not be received by the reader. This can cause a problem between the two, which would not have ensued if they were simply speaking to one another face-to-face. Clay explains how the lack of cues impacts the reader.

“When you don’t have some of those non-verbals, or tone of voice factors, I think there can be an anxiety of ‘how do I perceive the perspective of others?’ or ‘maybe they mean something more here’, ‘am I over interpreting it?’ It can just lead to a lot of guessing that can be anxiety producing,” Clay said.

This fear of misinterpretation causes anxiety in the individuals who are trying to interpret the true intention of the message they just recieved.

For example, messages like “K.” might mean a simple “okay” to some readers, but to another reader the person who sent the message may be viewed as being short and upset about something. This message in particular stresses the fear of being negatively evaluated.

Dennis Sutton, who works in the Communication Studies Department at Grand Rapids Community College, says that because it is easier and faster to communicate over technology, people tend to be less personal and exact in the messages they are sending.

“I don’t think people always completely understand how a message is going to be perceived, what the consequences of saying something are, because you can’t unsay it.,” Sutton said.

Users being less personal and more impulsive, combined with text messages that are misinterpreted can easily produce snarky messages that can soon result in a full-on fight between the communicators.

Social anxiety is present where someone is in a vulnerable position of judgement, and misread messages can pick away at this fear. Although texting is a helpful tool, it may be beneficial for users to be wise with picking what conversations they choose to have over technology, in order to decrease social anxiety and confusion between those who are communicating.

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