Studies have shown that individuals who are socially anxious prefer to communicate with others online rather than face to face. Social networking sites, such as Facebook, give them the opportunity to do just that. But how does this initial virtual interaction impact face-to-face interaction later on? A new study investigates.

Researchers from Benedictine University at Mesa, AZ, and the Providence College in Rhode Island published their findings in the journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking.

For the study, the team assessed the social anxiety levels of 26 female students aged 18-20 years. This was done using the Interaction Anxiousness Scale (IAS).

Participants were then told they would be memorizing the face of a fellow student to prepare for a facial recognition test. The subjects had electrodes placed on the ring and index finger of their left hand as a skin response measure, and they were randomly assigned to one of four conditions.

The first condition – “Facebook only” – required subjects to memorize the fellow student’s face from a Facebook profile page. The “face-to-face only” condition allowed participants to study the fellow student’s face while in the same room.

The “face-to-face and Facebook” condition required participants to study Facebook photos followed by live exposure to the fellow student, while the last condition was the reverse of this.

Each participant was then asked to identify and circle their fellow student in four different group pictures.

Screenshot of the top left corner of FacebookShare on Pinterest
Researchers found that for socially anxious individuals, meeting a person on Facebook did not make a subsequent face-to-face meeting any easier and actually increased psychological arousal.

Results of the study revealed that when a participant was first exposed to a fellow student on Facebook, subsequently meeting them in person increased psychological arousal for subjects who had high levels of social anxiety.

In other words, the initial exposure to this person on Facebook did not make a subsequent face-to-face encounter with them any easier, but rather, it made them more anxious.

The investigators hypothesize that viewing their fellow students on Facebook may have triggered self-presentation and caused subjects with social anxiety to compare themselves with that person.

They also note that participants may have felt a sense of safety when viewing fellow students on Facebook, but the shift to viewing them in real life could have made them feel agitated and nervous.

Commenting on the findings, the researchers say:

Whether it is a priming effect or an unwelcome stimulus change, the implication for socially anxious Facebook users is the same: initial Facebook exposure may not serve a protective function during a subsequent live exposure, but may lead to an increase in negative arousal.”

The investigators note that one limitation of their study is that they were only able to generalize real world situations, as participants were not social networking using their own Facebook page. Furthermore, they only monitored subjects’ encounters with the same sex.

They conclude that because of the growing popularity of social networking sites, further research is needed.

“Its influence on those who struggle with social anxiety is particularly critical,” they add.

Last year, Medical News Today reported on a study suggesting that Facebook activity could be an indicator of mental illness, while other research suggests that Facebook use makes us miserable.