A lot of nonsense is written about the psychological effects of technology, and the Internet in particular. All that time staring at screens must reduce good ol’ fashioned face-to-face contact, the scare-mongers say. A new study takes a different view. Levi Baker and Debra Oswald at Marquette University argue that “computer-mediated communication” could be just what shy people need.
Through sites like Facebook, shy people have more control over how they present themselves, the psychologists argue, and shared interests for discussion are immediately obvious – something shy people can struggle to identify in the flesh. There are also no non-verbal cues to be misinterpreted (past research shows that shy people tend to interpret such cues in an overly negative way). To test whether shy people really do benefit from Internet use, Baker and Oswald surveyed 207 undergrads (138 girls) about their shyness, Facebook usage and the quality of their friendships.
The encouraging finding was that among the more shy students, greater use of Facebook was associated with feeling closer to and more satisfied with friends (although this didn’t apply to face-to-face friends who weren’t on Facebook). Shy students who used Facebook more also had a greater sense of social support. In contrast, for non-shy students, Facebook usage wasn’t associated with perceptions of friendship quality.
‘Our findings refute warnings that computer-mediated communication use might cause shy individuals to become even more socially withdrawn and isolated,’ the researchers said. ‘The current data clearly demonstrate that shy individuals’ use of Facebook is associated with better quality friendships.’
There are two related caveats. Regrettably, as with so much psychology research, this was a cross-sectional study, so it’s unable to make any claims about whether Facebook usage actually causes friendship benefits for shy students. Also, shy students who were heavier users of Facebook reported the same levels of loneliness as their shy peers who didn’t use the service so much. There are many possible reasons for this – for example, despite their superior online-supported friendships, perhaps they still struggled with purely face-to-face relationships. Baker and Oswald are more optimistic. They think that if their data had been collected over time, it would likely have shown that greater Facebook use led to reduced loneliness. ‘Clearly future work needs to identify how, and under what conditions, online communication facilitates off-line communication among shy individuals,’ they said.
Baker, L., and Oswald, D. (2010). Shyness and online social networking services. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 27 (7), 873-889 DOI: 10.1177/0265407510375261