Stress about a meeting that is still a week away, handwringing before talking to the cashier in the grocery line, worrying about seeing an acquaintance on the street—for people with social anxiety disorder, even the simplest task can prove challenging. The symptoms of social anxiety often set in around adolescence, when people place a new emphasis on social interactions and their place in their peer groups. But some academics fear that greater access to technology could exacerbate social anxiety among teens, particularly as smartphones, tablets, and computers become omnipresent in and out of the classroom. And even though teachers are increasingly exploiting the devices as learning tools, they also play an integral role in stemming the tide of social anxiety.
“If we are glued to technology 24/7, it’s going to have an effect on social skills—it’s just natural,” said Tamyra Pierce, a journalism professor at California State University, Fresno. The clear link between technology and social behavior makes it all the more important that teachers who embrace these devices need to keep students’ social skills in mind.
An estimated 15 million Americans have social anxiety disorder, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, and symptoms usually start around age 13. More than just shyness, social anxiety causes people to fear the judgment and scrutiny of those around them. People with social anxiety often have concurrent disorders like depression. The disorder can affect every aspect of a person’s life, from academic performance to self esteem; in severe cases, social anxiety can be debilitating, keeping sufferers in bed and out of public places to avoid confrontation. But almost everyone suffers from at least a little social anxiety, says Thomas Rodebaugh, a psychology professor at Washington University in St. Louis. “We’d be worried about someone who never experiences any social anxiety,” he said.