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Journal of Anxiety Disorders
Seeking safety on the internet: Relationship between social anxiety and problematic internet use
Bianca W. Lee a , Lexine A. Stapinski b,∗
Department of Psychology, Macquarie University, Sydney, NSW 2109, Australia Centre for Emotional Health, Macquarie University, Sydney, NSW 2109, Australia
a r t i c l e
i n f o
a b s t r a c t
As internet use becomes increasingly integral to modern life, the hazards of excessive use are also becoming apparent. Prior research suggests that socially anxious individuals are particularly susceptible to problematic internet use. This vulnerability may relate to the perception of online communication as a safer means of interacting, due to greater control over self-presentation, decreased risk of negative evaluation, and improved relationship quality. To investigate these hypotheses, a general sample of 338 completed an online survey. Social anxiety was conﬁrmed as a signiﬁcant predictor of problematic internet use when controlling for depression and general anxiety. Social anxiety was associated with perceptions of greater control and decreased risk of negative evaluation when communicating online, however perceived relationship quality did not differ. Negative expectations during face-to-face interactions partially accounted for the relationship between social anxiety and problematic internet use. There was also preliminary evidence that preference for online communication exacerbates face-to-face avoidance. © 2011 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
Article history: Received 27 April 2011 Received in revised form 13 September 2011 Accepted 6 November 2011 Keywords: Social anxiety Social phobia Internet Addiction Threat Social avoidance
1. Introduction 1.1. Problematic internet use In the last decade there has been an increase in the number of studies investigating how the internet inﬂuences the lives of those who use it (Amichai-Hamburger & Furnham, 2007; Chak & Leung, 2004; McKenna & Bargh, 2000; Shaw & Gant, 2002). At the beginning of 2010, over 1.9 billion individuals were using the internet, of whom 6–13% are thought to be “addicted” to its use (ETforecasts, 2010; Morahan-Martin, 2001). Although researchers continue to debate the exact nature and deﬁnition of internet addiction (Morahan-Martin, 2005; Young, 1996), the most widely accepted is Davis’ (2001) cognitive-behavioral model of problematic internet use. According to this model, using the internet to regulate unpleasant moods, becoming attached to the social beneﬁts the internet provides, and perceiving more interpersonal control online than ofﬂine, leads to excessive use and the development of compulsions, withdrawal symptoms and negative social, psychological, and/or occupational consequences in the user’s ofﬂine life (Caplan, 2002; Davis, 2001). Collectively, these factors
∗ Corresponding author at: Department of Psychology, Macquarie University, Sydney, NSW 2109, Australia. Tel.: +61 2 9850 1801. E-mail address: email@example.com (L.A. Stapinski). 0887-6185/$ – see front matter © 2011 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved. doi:10.1016/j.janxdis.2011.11.001
are thought to be symptomatic of problematic internet use (Caplan, 2002). One of the primary functions of the internet is online communication, with almost 10 million Australians using the internet to communicate with family and friends (The Nielsen Company, 2010). Online communication has been shown to have a positive impact on users as a convenient way to maintain and improve current relationships, which may enhance the self-esteem and well-being of those involved (Gross, Juvonen, & Gable, 2002; Selfhout, Branje, Delsing, ter Bogt, & Meeus, 2009). However, if a network of online relationships or a single online partnership becomes all-consuming, then such relationships can negatively impact their ofﬂine lives on a social and/or occupational level (Campbell, Cumming, & Hughes, 2006; Parks & Roberts, 1998). Therefore, it is important to determine which factors predispose individuals to less adaptive use of the internet. Researchers investigating this issue have found that those who partake in instant messaging and online gaming are more likely to be problematic users compared to those who used the internet for other purposes (Caplan, Williams, & Yee, 2009; Chak & Leung, 2004). However, Caplan et al. (2009) found that while only 2% of the variance in problematic internet use was explained by online activities, 36% of the variance was accounted for by the individual’s psychological proﬁle. There are several psychological vulnerabilities associated with problematic internet use, including loneliness, depression, substance addictions, shyness, and aggression (Caplan,
Based on similar reasoning. & Stevenson. 2003). Caplan. 2000). & Fitzsimons. where attempts to reduce use produce stressful physiological responses. 2002. Ebeling-Witte et al. 2002). in the longer term conﬁdence to communicate with others beyond the online context may be undermined if successful online interactions are attributed to the unique aspects of the internet. Rapee & Heimberg. Parks & Floyd.. signs of visible anxiety may be perceived by others as unattractive. 1. and corresponding avoidance of these situations (Rapee & Heimberg. 1998).. 2002. Frank. Consistent with this idea. 2004). preference for online communication may lead to the development of problematic internet use (Caplan. few studies have examined the factors that may account for this relationship. McKenna & Bargh. Users may come to perceive their online lives as better. 2000). Davis’ model provides a way of understanding the relationship between psychological problems.2. While online communication appears to reduce or regulate social anxiety in the short term (Campbell et al. 2007... McKenna & Bargh. Consequently. 2004. 1996.. 2002).. 2007). 1996). and are thus vulnerable to problematic internet use (McKenna & Bargh. While the internet may be beneﬁcial in terms of facilitating engagement with previously avoided social interactions and activities. The Real Me model of problematic internet use proposes that some individuals have difﬁculty portraying their “true self” (p. It is thought that these psychological factors predispose individuals to social isolation in their ofﬂine lives. & Gleason. 1997). have been found to determine how much individuals like one another in face-to-face settings (McKenna et al. so they seek to fulﬁll their interpersonal needs online. where the constraints that usually make them interact poorly are reduced (Campbell et al. the comparably less threatening online context may provide the opportunity to fulﬁll the social need to belong and to be understood (Baumeister & Leary. This fear causes them to seek anonymous online relationships. 2000. Erwin. 1997). 2002. Stapinski / Journal of Anxiety Disorders 26 (2012) 197–205 2007. that their fear of negative evaluation is exaggerated (Rapee & Heimberg. Alternative explanations for the relationship between social anxiety and problematic internet use have focused on potential differences in the quality of online compared to ofﬂine relationships. both socially and psychologically. 2000. 2000. & Lester. Phillips. 2007. 2007. Chak & Leung. McKenna et al. McKenna et al. and therefore control. 2007. 2002). Caplan.A. 2001). One explanation for this relationship may relate to differences in the expectation of negative evaluation from an online compared to ofﬂine audience. 2005). Social anxiety has been conceptualized as a risk factor for the development of problematic internet use (Caplan. 1995. Shepherd & Edelmann. 2007.. 2006. Fresco. the . which arises when the internet provides rewards. 2004. Davis. Scealy et al. such as over preparation or speaking quickly (Clark & Wells. One possible explanation for this ﬁnding is that the intense fear of negative evaluation experienced by those with social anxiety inhibits self-disclosure in face-to-face relationships. Physical features. 2007. 2002). Turk. Avoidance also takes the form of subtle safety behaviors.. This model has been successfully applied to socially anxious participants. and ultimately leads to the development of problematic internet use and the maintenance of interpersonal anxiety (Andersson. 2004) and other unpleasant situations (Ebeling-Witte et al. social successes such as positive feedback may be attributed to the safety behavior rather than personal ability. such as depression and social anxiety. Erwin et al. Communicating online may be one such safety behavior that allows those with social anxiety to communicate with others while minimizing potential threat and associated anxiety (Erwin et al. Whang. While these behaviors function to temporarily reduce anxiety. who reported they were more likely to portray their true self online (McKenna et al. 1998. Chak & Leung. socially anxious individuals may be able to develop more meaningful friendships (Bargh.. However. 2004. 1989). such as sweating and stammering (Alden & Bieling. the aspects of their appearance they perceive as leading to negative evaluation. 2009. This may result in a cycle of avoidance that is perpetuated by online communication. 2002. socially anxious samples report experiencing greater ease interacting on the internet as compared to face-to-face (Erwin et al. 1998. 2007. McKenna. McKenna & Bargh. allows those with social anxiety to conceal. 2003. where they can more easily be themselves. 2007. 2006. Caplan. 2002. 2006.. A growing body of evidence has identiﬁed a positive correlation between social anxiety and problematic internet use (Campbell et al. Ebeling-Witte. Erwin et al..W. McKenna & Bargh. The disorder is characterized by inﬂated threat expectancies in social-evaluative contexts... & Hantula. rather than personal attributes (Clark & Wells. and the lack of visual cues when communicating online. 2000). 2007). the social compensation hypothesis suggests that socially anxious individuals compensate for poor ofﬂine relationships by seeking attachments in an online environment. McKenna & Bargh. 1995. 2002. 2004. Caplan et al. some researchers have proposed that online interactions are perceived as safer. Researchers have speculated that the text-based nature of the internet. McKenna & Bargh. which could dictate how successful those with social anxiety will be at forming face-toface relationships (McKenna & Bargh. Erwin et al. 1998. Preliminary support for this hypothesis comes from recent studies showing that both social shyness and preference for online communication were positively correlated with problematic internet use (Caplan. Scealy. 2004.. 2002). 34) in their face-toface relationships due to fear of rejection (Bargh et al.. Given that concerns about physical appearance are reduced online. These participants reported a reliance on the internet as a social outlet that enabled them to avoid face-to-face interactions (Erwin et al. however. through experience. 2009. 2000). 2005). such as developing better quality relationships online (AmichaiHamburger & Furnham. 2009. 2009).. Although disclosure can lead to risks such as social rejection and emotional vulnerability (Pennebaker. Selfhout et al. 2005). 2002). King & Poulos.198 B.. Consistent with this idea. Lee. 2000). safety behaviors prevent these individuals from learning that they are overestimating the likelihood of negative evaluation and underestimating their social ability (Alden & Bieling. McKenna & Bargh... Consequently. Thus. such as compulsive or withdrawal symptoms (Caplan. 2000). such as anonymity. 2004. McKenna. such as attractiveness. Heimberg. Green. Walther. 2000). and problematic internet use. Shepherd & Edelmann. 2004). & Chang. Sheeks & Birchmeier. Once problematic internet use has developed. Although this hypothesis has not yet been tested directly. than face-to-face interactions (Amichai-Hamburger & Furnham. The relationship between social anxiety and problematic internet use Social anxiety is extremely debilitating due to the negative impact on social networks. Gross et al. preliminary support is derived from investigations of the motives for internet use amongst socially anxious individuals... 2007. Along similar lines. Shepherd & Edelmann. and account for this by assuming that their social abilities are better during online compared to face-toface interactions. This tendency to avoid face-to-face interactions may preclude the beneﬁcial effect of learning.. 2002). La Greca & Lopez. L. 1997).. 2007.. 2003. Valkenburg & Peter. it may be maintained by a negative feedback loop. 2004. the anonymous nature of online interactions is thought to minimize these risks (Amichai-Hamburger & Furnham. in terms of the probability and consequences of negative evaluation. Selfhout et al. Ebeling-Witte et al. Erwin et al. Lee. 1995). and consequent isolation (Gross et al. Self-disclosure is thought to be the foundation of these less superﬁcial online relationships (McKenna & Bargh. Davis’ model (2001) proposes that problematic internet use is a consequence of a pre-existing psychopathology.
breadth and depth of conversation in online as compared to ofﬂine relationships. it was predicted that individuals with social anxiety may be susceptible to problematic internet use due to a perception of greater interdependence. leaving a sample size of 338 with 134 men and 204 women. which was replicated in the present study (˛ = . 2. 2002. Anxiety and Stress Scale-21-item version (DASS-21. “meeting strangers”) and asked to rate their level of fear on a 4 point scale from 0 (none) to 3 (severe).88). 2. and stress. Relationship quality The Levels of Development in Online Relationships survey (LoD. 2. Respondents completed measures assessing internet use. King & Poulos.3. & Asmundson. and (2) preference for online social interaction would be associated with avoidance of face-to-face interactions while controlling for the level of avoidance attributable to fear of negative evaluation.1.. Parks & Floyd. A $50 prize draw was offered as an incentive for participating...87.1.91.g. ˛ = . 2007). 2005). Procedure The online survey was managed using the survey creator. “our communication ranges over a wide variety of topics”). 2004. In line with this conceptualization. Selfhout et al. 1998..g. Lee.90) subscales have been demonstrated (Henry & Crawford. Participants rated the extent to which statements were characteristic of them (e. 2.. Twitter. Respondents were asked to rate on a 4 point scale how much each statement applied to them in the past week ranging from 0 to 3.84) and total score (˛ = .82). Comparable internal consistency was demonstrated in the current sample for the subscales (˛ = . commitment. All procedures were approved by the Macquarie University Human Research Ethics Committee. general anxiety and stress. The original survey was modiﬁed to incorporate online pornography.5. the study explored whether perceptions of relationship quality partially account for the association between social anxiety and problematic internet use. internet dating. and their perceptions of threat during an online and ofﬂine social interaction.92) and total score (˛ = .66) and total score (r = . 2002). advertisements sent to the Psychology Department mailing lists. Peters & Malesky.83. Fear of negative evaluation The Brief Fear of Negative Evaluation scale II (bFNEII) is the 8-item shortened version of the original scale used to measure fear of negative evaluation in face-to-face environments (Carleton. where higher scores reﬂect more severe psychopathology.W. (2004) internet usage survey was used to determine the frequency and breadth of online applications used in an average week. Erwin et al. predictability.97).. 2009. Shaw & Gant. 2009. . 2. which have been implicated as predictors in previous research (Caplan et al. 2005). Carleton et al. L. 2008.2. 2. and posts on a range of online social. problematic internet use (Bargh et al.g. (2006) reported high convergent validity of the bFNEII. Fresco et al. To facilitate broader distribution.. this study examined whether socially anxious individuals perceive greater control over their self-presentation when communicating online and perceive these interactions to be associated with decreased risk of negative evaluation. The survey was accessed via a URL link. Secondly.96). Measures assessing perception of social threat online compared to ofﬂine were counterbalanced to control for order effects.g. Again. McKenna et al. 2001). Participants were given 24 statements describing various social situations (e..94) in a non clinical sample have been found (Fresco et al. and responses were transmitted to a secure server. Fresco et al. 1995) was used to measure symptoms of depression. Finally.73–. anxiety. Anxiety and Stress Scale The Depression. recipients were asked to forward the to others who may be interested to participate. and comparable internal consistencies were found in the current study (˛ = . few studies have examined these hypotheses empirically. In order to test the relevant hypotheses. 1. A total of 460 individuals began the online survey and of these. Methods 2. 1996) was used to measure various factors that reﬂect relationship quality. 2002). Firstly.62–.. Qualtrics. Subscales assessing breadth (e. 2006). McCreary. Norton. online and ofﬂine relationship quality was assessed by matching relationships according to their duration. The current study While a number of promising explanations have been proposed to account for the relationship between social anxiety and problematic internet use.81 and ˛ = .88–. depth (e. 2001) was used to measure social anxiety across two different domains: fear/anxiety and avoidance. and good internal consistency (˛ = .3.A. Good internal consistencies for all subscales (˛ = .. Social anxiety The self-report version of the Liebowitz Social Anxiety Scale (LSAS-SR. 345 participants completed it. Myspace. the current study explored the conceptualization of online communication as a safety behavior that reduces discomfort but perpetuates the social avoidance associated with this disorder. The LSAS-SR has good construct validity for all subscales (r = . gaming and mental health forums. it was hypothesized that these factors may partially account for the relationship between social anxiety and problematic internet use. the quality of a chosen online and ofﬂine relationship. Depression.. Participants Adults living in Australia who identiﬁed that they use the internet for communicative purposes on a regular basis were invited to participate in the study. Stapinski / Journal of Anxiety Disorders 26 (2012) 197–205 199 perception of better relationship quality online compared to ofﬂine may produce a reliance on internet-based relationships and ultimately. The perceived quality of online and ofﬂine relationships will be examined further in the current paper.B.3.4.. Measures 2. Participants were recruited via posters placed around Macquarie University. online gaming. respectively). and more recently developed social applications including Facebook.2.3..3. The DASS-21 has high convergent and discriminant validity with other validated measures of depression and anxiety (Henry & Crawford. psychological well-being. “I am afraid others will not approve of me”) on a 5 point scale ranging from 0 to 4. this study assessed the relationship between symptoms of social anxiety and problematic internet use while controlling for comorbid depression. and stress (˛ = . anxiety (˛ = . This study administered an online survey to address several as yet unanswered questions. Seven participants were excluded from further analyses because they were under 18 years of age. 2001). Messenger (MSN).96). it was predicted that (1) the relationship between social anxiety and preference for online social interactions would be partially explained by the self-reported use of safety behaviors. Valkenburg & Peter. 2002.3.3. Good internal consistency for the depression (˛ = .3. Lovibond & Lovibond. 2. Internet usage A modiﬁed version of Erwin et al. and avoidance in the last week from 0 (never avoided this activity) to 3 (usually avoided this activity). Thirdly. Considering the work of McKenna and colleagues (McKenna et al.
78–. The POSI showed good internal consistency (˛ = . To apply this scale separately to online and ofﬂine interactions. Generalized Problematic Internet Use Scale The Generalized Problematic Internet Use Scale (GPIUS. “I have control over how others perceive me online”) with a total of 28 questions. Rapee & Abbott.g.85. 1) in conjunction with 1000 bootstrap resamples to determine the 95% conﬁdence interval for the indirect effect. Results 3. To assess relationship quality separately for online and ofﬂine relationships. “the two of us depend on each other”).90). 2. The subscales show good internal consistency (˛ = .e.g. withdrawal (e.7.3. 1974). As multiple tests were conducted per hypothesis.8–.g. as shown in Fig. Testing assumptions The assumptions of normality and sphericity were met for all variables. Given the cross-sectional nature of the data. 3. “I can accurately predict how this person will respond to me in most situations”) were used in the current study. “I spend a good deal of time online”).. This allowed the online and ofﬂine relationship to be matched according to the duration of the chosen online friendship. and outcomes of problematic internet use according to Davis’ model (2001). along with good internal consistency across these subscales (˛ = .89. Parks & Floyd.. Safety behaviors The Subtle Avoidance Frequency Examination (SAFE) was utilized to assess the use of safety behaviors commonly used by socially anxious individuals. “I am very committed to maintaining this relationship”).92) measure.W. 1996).6. 2002).g. commitment (e.200 B. The total online and ofﬂine threat scores were derived by multiplying the probability and consequence score for each item. introducing yourself.4. It consists of seven subscales: mood alteration (e.9. Caplan. 2002). The extent to which the respondents agreed or disagreed with various statements about their chosen relationships were ranked on a scale from 1 (strongly disagree) to 7 (strongly agree). Zuckerman et al. Respondents were asked to rate how often they would engage in 32 behaviors during a face-to-face social situation (e. social beneﬁts (e. For each negative judgment. however participants were asked to “Imagine that you are meeting a new acquaintance for the ﬁrst time.. Stapinski / Journal of Anxiety Disorders 26 (2012) 197–205 “I usually tell this person exactly how I feel”).g. Think about how you would handle this situation. i.” Participants were then asked to think of a face-to-face friend they have known for roughly the same amount of time as the online friend they chose.g. Good internal consistency for this measure has been established in previous research (˛ = . The online vignette read: Imagine that you begin to chat with a new acquaintance over the internet.93) and its subscales (˛ = . the SAFE demonstrated good construct validity and strong internal consistency (˛ = .. 2. All reported p-values and conﬁdence intervals have been adjusted for this error rate correction. 2. You are put in contact through a mutual friend..A. 2. 2002).. “avoid eye contact”) ranging from 0 (never) to 5 (always). Carr.g.3. to ensure that the online and ofﬂine vignettes could be correctly differentiated. (e. etc. Use the following scale to indicate how likely it is they will make these judgments. Caplan..62–. carrying on a conversation. negative consequences (e.3. Although you have never met them before.g. and their estimate of how bad this would be should it occur (consequences. you are likely to see them again. 2002) was used to measure the cognitions.g. The current study followed Baron and Kenny’s recommended steps (1986. “he/she thinks that your conversation is boring”) participants were asked to rate how likely and how bad it would be on a scale of 0 (not at all likely/bad) to 4 (extremely likely/bad).g.” A small pilot study was conducted (n = 4). and predictability (e. You are introduced at a social function by a mutual friend.87). L.90) and ofﬂine (˛ = . 2. and in the current sample for the online (˛ = . Good internal consistency was also demonstrated in the current study for both online (˛ = . you are likely to come across them again on the internet. two vignettes were developed. Instead.. and interpersonal control (e. Preference for Online Social Interaction The Preference for Online Social Interaction scale (POSI. Lee.86) in a normal sample (Caplan. 2003). “I feel more conﬁdent socializing online than ofﬂine”). where higher scores indicated more severe problematic internet use... and this was also demonstrated in the current sample for the total score (˛ = . Respondents rated their agreement or disagreement with each statement using a 5 point scale.f. Prior research has established good content validity with respect to Davis’ deﬁnition of problematic internet use (Caplan. In a sample with social phobia. “I go online to make myself feel better when I am down”). 2009).1. 2007). Choose the person with whom you are closest and answer the following questions in relation to that person.90) versions. Perceived probability and consequences of threat The Probability and Consequences of Threat survey was used to measure respondents’ perception of social threat in terms of the likelihood of negative evaluation from a hypothetical conversation partner (probability). “I ﬁnd it hard to stop thinking about what is waiting for me online”). The ofﬂine vignette was identical to the ﬁrst. participants were ﬁrst instructed: “Please think of the people with whom you primarily communicate with (more than 90% of the time) over the internet.. Responses were rated on a 5 point scale where higher scores indicated stronger preference for online interactions.81–. Although you have never met them face-to-face. interdependence (e. Mediation analyses were used to explore the mechanisms thought to contribute to the direct relationship between variables of interest (see Fig. Rapee & Abbott. Data coding and analysis Categorical variables with options endorsed by small participant numbers (n < 30) were combined with a conceptually related group. “I have made unsuccessful attempts to control my internet use”).8.g. behaviors. Content validity of the LoD scale has been established. This was replicated in the present sample (˛ = . 2002. Below are a number of judgments your new acquaintance may make about you. ﬁndings derived from these mediation analyses only suggest possible causal relationships. 2007). Cuming et al.3. The equal variance assumption was met for all variables with the exception of two: social avoidance and preference for online social interaction. a Benjamini and Hochberg (1995) correction was applied to each set to control the Type-1 error rate. and then summing these together (c. and also in the current sample (˛ = . Caplan.88. 2003) was used to measure to what extent the respondent preferred online over face-to-face communication. “I have missed class or work because I was online”).. A log10 data transformation was .g.93..85–. 1).95).90) and the ofﬂine (˛ = . Difference scores were not used to evaluate differences between online and ofﬂine relationship quality and threat perception due to concerns that the interpretation of such analyses can be misleading (see Edwards. excessive use (e. compulsivity (e. hypotheses were tested using a repeated measures procedure where variables were treated as within-subject predictors with two levels (online and ofﬂine)...
W.01. 327) = 28. 327) = 3.02). were also more likely to develop problematic internet use. considered to reduce this violation.1. 327) = 2. Seven participants were unable to complete the relationship quality measures for a friend they primarily communicate with online. L.53 5. 3. SD = 7.17.003.79. 2004). and depression.54 SD 4. Lee. 3. p = .85% exhibiting problematic levels of internet use (a score above 84). range: 0–42). p = . Á2 = .90 23.11. An exploratory factor analysis supported a one factor solution. the mean score of problematic internet use (M = 70.04.15.49 4. F(1. therefore a transformation was not implemented.08. 336) = . Á2 = .86 (SD = 26.62 SD 5. F(1.78 7. p < . When controlling for the effect of anxiety. Diagram of the general mediation model including direct and indirect effects. 95% CI [. . SD = 15. 54% had higher levels of anxiety (M = 7. The Direct effect Independent Variable Dependent Variable Path c B. 336) = 13.36].B.88) where men (M = 33. Respondents born in Australia. 3. p < .2. F(1. Demographic variables associated with problematic internet use In the current sample.01. 336) = 19.33 27. Á2 = . 76% were Caucasian. SD = 23. income. p = .32. Sixty-eight percent of participants were not living with a spouse or partner. The Indirect effect Path a Mediator Variable Path b Independent Variable Path c’ Dependent Variable Fig.48 Range 0–28 0–28 4–28 5–21 5–35 8–28 9–28 .45]. Á2 = .001. Á2 = .67. F(1.99. and those with lower income.24.018. Á2 = . 1.77.03.05.50 17.001).55 4.30 Range 0–25 0–28 4–28 3–21 5–35 5–28 5–28 Face-to-face Mean 6. and 2 participants did not complete the Probability and Consequences of Threat survey. .31.02. SD = 9.84 4.17.75 years (SD = 12.44 24. F(1. F(1.91.08) is within the non-pathological range (28–84).54 23. which gave an eigenvalue of 3. a univariate approach was employed by using the total score derived from the 7 subscales.03. the current sample is more disordered than Caplan’s normative sample (M = 53. However. SD = 8. SD = 10. F(1. The pattern of results were the same. Á2 = .11) were signiﬁcantly older than women (M = 27.27. 67% had education beyond secondary school and 34% were full-time students. Variable Online Mean Probability of threat Consequences of threat Interdependence Breadth Depth Predictability Commitment 4.01.41. p= .79 and accounted for 54% of the variance. with 52% (n = 176) of the sample scoring at level indicative of ‘probable’ social anxiety disorder according to the Liebowitz Social Anxiety Scale (Stein.81 10.53.55. 74% were born in Australia.21.15) with 24. F(1. Sample characteristics The mean age of the sample was 29.68. 336) = 6. The age range was between 18 and 74 years. (2005) assert that addressing these violations is not necessary unless “results differ qualitatively before and after transformation” (p. t(336) = 4. However.02 were more likely to have problematic internet use. marital status. Data from these participants were excluded from the relevant section of the analysis. so were controlled for in all analyses where problematic internet use was the dependent variable. p = . race.001. which is unsurprising given the majority were excluded because they could not identify an online friendship for the relationship questionnaire.24. p < .08. p = .94.11 4. 330) = 101. Table 1 Descriptive statistics for perception of threat and relationship quality. However. social anxiety remained a signiﬁcant predictor of problematic internet use.37 20. Á2 = . p = . Given these ﬁndings. p < .02.14. 336) = 3. Thirty-two percent of the sample had higher levels of stress (M = 12.71.53. 2005).056.28 17. 335) = 3. younger participants.001.3. F(1. 336) = 11. 127). Stapinski / Journal of Anxiety Disorders 26 (2012) 197–205 201 A.20 13.96 26.4. roughly half of the current sample appears to be psychologically healthy. SD = 21. range: 0–40) than the normative data obtained from a non-clinical sample (Henry & Crawford.49. p = .5.001. stress. F(1.77 5. Á2 = . F(1. The sample had a mean social anxiety score of 37. range: 0–34).61 22.12 7. and 43% had higher levels of depression (M = 10.42 7.A. Vittinghoff et al. this result should be treated with caution given the small sample size (n = 9) in the excluded group. Á2 = . Excluded participants did not signiﬁcantly differ from the rest of the sample in terms of social anxiety.25.99 15. Thus. 327) = 7.40 7. age.28. p < . range: 0–141). all Á2 s > .73 4. There was a trend towards lower levels of problematic internet use in the excluded group.4. Therefore.34. According to the theoretical cut-off scores proposed by Caplan (2002).24.58. and those who were not of Caucasian race. Higher social anxiety was associated with more problematic internet use as assessed by this total score. Social anxiety and aspects of problematic internet use A multivariate analysis indicated that social anxiety was associated with all aspects of problematic internet use (all ps < . individuals not living with a partner.06. Testing hypotheses 3. F(1. The descriptive statistics for perceptions of threat and relationship quality are presented in Table 1. 95% CI [.71 5. and country of birth may be extraneous variables.
54*** .26]. Contrary to expectations. 329) = 0. p = .10] . The relationship between social anxiety and problematic internet use was not signiﬁcantly mediated by perceived probability of threat during online interactions 95% CI [−. 95% CI [−1. F(1. Mediator variable (MV) Independent variable (IV) bFNE SA SA SA Probability of online threat Probability of ftf threat POSI SAFE GPIUS Avoidance POSI 3.64 31. F(1.015. It was also of interest to explore whether preference for online communication exacerbates avoidance of face-to-face interactions. p = .4. Furthermore.61.1] (see Table 2).84.88. Adjusted R2 (%) 29.05. This possibility was tested using two mediation analyses (see Table 2).47.02.29.12 .04.02.21.67 ** . . 323) = 6.14*** .02).04].31 .4. repeated measures analyses showed that those with higher social anxiety perceived less threat during online than face-to-face interactions. 334) = 60. F(1. perceived probability of threat during face-to-face interactions did signiﬁcantly mediate the relationship between social anxiety and problematic internet use. p = . Avoidance: avoidance of face-to-face interactions in the past week.18. 323) = 24.36*** Effect of MV on DV (b) Effect of IV on MV (a) *** . Therefore.05*** . where the indirect effect was signiﬁcant at 95% CI [. p < .12.001.08 [.02. Direct effect (c’) 3.22].083. breadth.05.02.03.24. −.W. F(1. depth. This revealed that reports of high interdependence F(1.26 *** Total effects (c) .004. 334) = 71. 330) = 18.026. However.001.14] ** Indirect effect (a × b) .2. bFNE: Brief Fear of Negative Evaluation scale.00. F(1.29*** . 329) = 0. F(1.046]. but no signiﬁcant difference was perceived between the consequences of such threat in an online and ofﬂine environment. Á2 = .65. 95% CI [. No other relationship quality variables predicted problematic internet use (all ps > . Upon further exploration. p = .12] in online relationships were associated with problematic internet use. F(1. p = . p = . a separate univariate analysis was conducted for each aspect of relationship quality. these variables were examined as factors that may account for the relationship between social anxiety and problematic internet use. irrespective of social anxiety level. . Á2 = . 323) = 10. . 323) = 8. Stapinski / Journal of Anxiety Disorders 26 (2012) 197–205 Note.001.14].53*** .08.83. those with higher levels of social anxiety did not perceive better quality online than ofﬂine relationships in terms of interdependence.87. Dependent variable (DV) GPIUS 3. Á2 = .11*** . POSI: preference for online social interactions. . depth and predictability of relationships irrespective of communication mode (ps < . GPIUS: Generalized Problematic Internet Use Scale. −. p = .66. predictability.05] [.08*** .05).001. L.38 45. ftf: face-to-face. 95% CI [−.05. To further explore the relationship between problematic internet use and relationship quality.05. another mediation analysis evaluated whether preference for online social interaction predicts avoidance of face-to-face interactions (as assessed by the Liebowitz Social Anxiety Scale) above and beyond avoidance attributable to fear of negative evaluation (as assessed by the Brief Fear of Negative Evaluation scale).03. p < . −. p < . Á2 = .18.02 .02. 95% CI [−1.03.35. 329) = . For face-to-face relationships. p = . while interdependence and commitment in relationships did not differ (ps > . 334) = 3. −. 95% CI [−1.38*** 95% CI indirect effect [−. Perception of threat online versus ofﬂine As predicted. p = .44*** . SA: social anxiety. p = .31] were associated with more problematic internet use. predictability.001.68. 87]. p = . −. F(1.05. and predictability F(1. F(1.02. Since social anxiety was associated with a difference in the perceived probability of threat occurring online compared to ofﬂine. main effect analyses conﬁrmed that social anxiety was associated with decreased breadth. F(1.4.A. 329) = 4.06** .79]. Á2 = .32*** . 323) = 6.05).07. Table 2 Summary of mediation results (1000 bootstrap resamples).3 *** . low levels of breadth.45. 95% CI [−1. ** p < .004. all Á2 s < . 95% CI [. depth. Á2 = .02. it was found that those with higher social anxiety perceived the probability of threat occurring to be less likely during online than ofﬂine interactions. . 329) = 1. .39.202 B.03. Quality of online relationships A repeated measures analysis indicated that those with higher levels of social anxiety reported communicating with more people online than ofﬂine. and commitment.01. or commitment F(1. .3.10 29.09** . F(1. *** p < . those with higher levels of social anxiety perceived more interpersonal control during online than ofﬂine interactions. p = .19] [. 329) = 6. F(1.09.17. Á2 = . .4. Lee. However.22 . 323) = 13.44. Online communication as a safety behavior A mediation analysis revealed a signiﬁcant indirect effect where the relationship between social anxiety and preference for online social interaction was partially mediated by the tendency to use safety behaviors with a 95% CI [.02. p = 39.02.001. F(1.
King & Poulos. the current ﬁndings suggest that socially anxious individuals are at risk of developing problematic internet use because their inﬂated .A. Consistent with this idea. 2008. and commitment in their online relationships relative to ofﬂine relationships. The current study also found that those with higher social anxiety reported communicating with more people online as compared to face-to-face. it therefore seems that aspects of the online context. in that it may assist the formation of new friendships.W. King & Poulos. The association between relationship quality and problematic internet use. Relationship quality. Ko et al. As expected. future researchers may be interested in examining other factors that may make online relationships preferable for individuals with social anxiety. such as feelings of satisfaction and fulﬁllment. Thus. 2007. social anxiety and problematic internet use Researchers have hypothesized that online communication is perceived as less threatening with less risk of negative consequences as compared to face-to-face interactions (AmichaiHamburger & Furnham. Valkenburg & Peter. producing a large effect size. However. This was not supported by the current data as no discrepancy was observed between the quality of online compared to ofﬂine relationships as a function of social anxiety. This contrasts with previous research demonstrating a moderate relationship between depression and problematic internet use (Caplan et al. this study showed that higher social anxiety was associated with a perception of greater control during online social interactions as compared to face-to-face interactions. 2009. It has been suggested that decreased social threat perception during online interactions could explain why those with social anxiety are more vulnerable to problematic internet use (AmichaiHamburger & Furnham. 1998). the current study appears to be the ﬁrst to directly examine the relationship between social anxiety and the quality of online relationships. 2007). but rather by the perceived probability of face-to-face threat. the current study found that social anxiety was associated with the perception of poorer quality relationships. are not sufﬁcient to reduce the perceived consequences of negative evaluation. L.. On the whole. Thus. Caplan. irrespective of social anxiety level.. 2002. the online medium does not appear to improve perceived relationship quality. King & Poulos. However. Caplan. the relationship between fear of negative evaluation and social avoidance was found to be partially mediated by having a preference for online social interactions with a 95% CI [. Subscales assessing depression. as previous studies using general samples suggest that reporting about one online and one ofﬂine relationship is representative of general friendship quality (McKenna et al. this idea has received little empirical attention. 2007).g. which proposes that the internet may promote online friendships at the expense of face-to-face social networks (Peters & Malesky. the results of this study indicated that this relationship is not mediated by perceived probability of online threat. 2002. depth. Firstly. social anxiety and problematic internet use According to current models. 2002. the consequences of negative evaluation were perceived as equal regardless of the medium via which they interacted.. 2008). It was predicted that online communication may be appealing for social anxious individuals because they perceive more interdependence. This revealed that those who reported poorer quality face-to-face relationships. online interactions may be perceived as more controllable because an online audience is unable to hear mistakes in speech or see visible signs of anxiety. . 2007. Lee... this study extended previous research by demonstrating that social anxiety uniquely predicted problematic internet use when controlling for variance accounted for by general psychopathological symptoms.1. 1998.. but omits any assessment of social avoidance. with only anxiety reaching signiﬁcance as a predictor of problematic internet use.. Furthermore. this study was the ﬁrst to examine whether socially anxious individuals perceive online interactions to be less threatening in terms of the probability and consequences of negative evaluation. McKenna & Bargh. rather social anxiety is associated with poor relationship quality across both mediums. only one relationship of each type was selected. it may be that aspects other than those measured in the current study are critical to the perception of preferable online compared to face-to-face relationships. 2000). social anxious individuals perceive their relationships to be impoverished and unsatisfactory (e. but also exacerbate avoidance of face-to-face interactions. 2007. socially anxious individuals were nevertheless fearful of these interactions. this points to the potential beneﬁts of targeting the development and maintenance of healthy face-to-face relationships in interventions for problematic internet use. or achieving a sense of belonging (King & Poulos.19] (see Table 2). This ﬁnding suggests that high quality face-to-face friendships may provide protection against development of problematic internet use. Therefore. Erwin et al. This converges with previous ﬁndings. and participants answered questions with this relationship in mind.2. 2004). Discussion As expected. Erwin et al. 4. those with higher social anxiety perceived the probability of threat to be signiﬁcantly less during online than face-to-face interactions. In addition. 2009.’s (2004) ﬁndings suggest. Valkenburg & Peter. such as anonymity. was also explored.B. 4. Although these results are inconsistent with proposed models of social anxiety and problematic internet use (Bargh et al. Consistent with previous research (Caplan. There are several possible explanations for these unexpected ﬁndings. Parks & Roberts. 2008). Stapinski / Journal of Anxiety Disorders 26 (2012) 197–205 203 The bFNEII was selected for this purpose because it assesses the fears that are central to social anxiety disorder (Rapee & Heimberg.. Threat. the effect of online relationships on the social well-being of those with social anxiety may be two-fold. However. it is possible that the selected relationship may not be representative of participants’ relationship quality more generally. Furthermore. Contrary to expectations. predictability. This ﬁnding is consistent with the social compensation hypothesis.’s (2004) report that despite perceiving greater control during online interactions. in order to match relationship duration across online and ofﬂine contexts. As predicted. and suggests that social anxiety should be controlled for in future studies given the potential overlap with depression. This seems to suggest that socially anxious individuals are not drawn to online interactions because these are perceived as safe. which have similarly found an association between social anxiety and internet use (Caplan. and those with greater dependence on and predictability in their online relationships.. 2004. Therefore. 2004). both online and ofﬂine. However. Sheeks & Birchmeier. 1998. Erwin et al. but rather because face-to-face interactions are so threatening. Selfhout et al. general anxiety and stress produced modest effect sizes.05. 1998). This is consistent with Erwin et al. 2002.. As Erwin et al. Erwin et al. Clinically. preference for online social interaction was found to be signiﬁcantly associated with face-to-face avoidance in the past week after controlling for the level of avoidance explained by fear of negative evaluation (see path b in Table 2). the current study showed that social anxiety was strongly associated with greater problematic internet use. this explanation seems unlikely. 1997). Secondly. 4. 1998. 2004). 2007. were vulnerable to problematic internet use. breadth.
Limitations Several limitations of the current study should be noted. 4. In these populations it will important to incorporate regular exposure to face-to-face interactions to provide corrective learning experiences and reduce avoidance in this context (Rapee & Heimberg. Clinical implications The present ﬁndings have implications for those who work with clients experiencing social anxiety and/or problematic internet use. It is important that therapists are aware of factors that predispose individuals to problematic internet use.3. Although several predictors of problematic internet use were identiﬁed. Furthermore. Davis. Thus. the present ﬁndings also suggest that online communication may be a safety behavior for those with social anxiety. 2007. Therefore. 4. the current study provides preliminary evidence that socially anxious individuals use online communication to feel safer in the face of negative evaluation.. and is likely attributable to the recruitment strategy which included posts on numerous gaming and mental health forums. The indirect effect was signiﬁcant. online communication may be one of many safety behaviors employed to neutralize or avoid threatening social interactions. The current ﬁndings also bear relevance to the use of the internet as a therapeutic device.A. and prior research has demonstrated good content validity with respect to Davis’ deﬁnition of problematic internet use (Caplan. Early intervention may be particularly important for young adults and adolescents. the sample may not be representative of the broader population of internet users. and a ‘very probable’ or ‘extremely probable’ diagnosis for 18% of participants. King & Poulos. However. 1997). Therapists need to be aware of the potential beneﬁts and disadvantages of online therapy. As internet access becomes more readily available and problematic internet use becomes more prevalent (Morahan-Martin. Despite these limitations. 1997. makes longitudinal research vital to clarify the nature of this relationship.. Erwin et al. Evidence is accumulating to support online therapy approaches to the treatment of social anxiety and other disorders. it enhances the effectiveness of therapy by providing a safe environment for interaction and expression. 2009). This representation is high for a general sample. Stapinski / Journal of Anxiety Disorders 26 (2012) 197–205 perceptions of negative evaluation during face-to-face interactions drive them to ﬁnd safer means of communication. the mediation ﬁndings in the current paper suggest possible causal pathways through which problematic internet use may develop in those with social anxiety. As described above. leading to excessive internet use. Andersson (2009) has concurred that while online therapy for social anxiety may reinforce face-to-face avoidance. Valkenburg & Peter. 2003. suggesting that online communication exacerbates avoidance of face-to-face interactions in those with social anxiety even when controlling for the variance directly attributable to fear of negative evaluation. 12). Unfortunately. It will be important for future studies to replicate the current ﬁndings in a treatment-seeking sample. 2003). Although attempts were made to recruit broadly via online forums. 4. However. online communication may provide those with social anxiety a means of avoiding threatening face-to-face interactions. Given the current ﬁndings. Whang et al. First and foremost. the effect size for some predictors was small. Interventions to decrease vulnerability to problematic internet use may incorporate development of adaptive anxiety management strategies. and this mode is becoming increasingly popular amongst clinicians (Andersson. Safety behaviors are thought to reinforce the maladaptive cognitions. This indicates that for individuals with social anxiety. because the lack of fear is attributed to the safety behavior rather than the individual’s ability (Rapee & Heimberg. . 2000. there are currently no instruments available that have demonstrated construct validity for identifying those with internet use problems. and promotion of positive face-toface friendships. and therefore caution should be taken when generalizing to older individuals. 2008). 2002). Finally. Some limitations of the recruitment method and sample warrant comment.W. and preference or reliance on the internet for social interaction. the relationship between social anxiety and having a preference for online social interactions was partially accounted for by the tendency to adopt a range of alternate safety behaviors in social situations. Furthermore. it should be noted that scores on the Liebowitz Social Anxiety Scale indicated a ‘probable’ diagnosis of social anxiety disorder for 34% of participants.4. and thus perpetuate avoidance of threatening situations. older individuals were not as well represented in the sample as the younger age range. it is possible that the mediation relationships identiﬁed in a cross-sectional study would not be replicated with longitudinal data. and tend to communicate with a greater number of people online than face-to-face. L. online therapy may be particularly appealing to socially anxious individuals given the greater interpersonal control and increased comfort it provides. This hypothesis was supported in the current study by four lines of evidence. 2001). 2004.5. which has not yet been examined for construct validity. individuals with social anxiety perceived the probability of social threat to be reduced during online as compared to ofﬂine interactions. Turkle (1995) provides an alternative perspective on this issue. it is likely that a majority of the sample were recruited via and list servers that started from the Macquarie University Department of Psychology. longitudinal and experimental data are needed to validate these relationships. 1998. Problematic internet use as a safety behavior It was predicted that online communication may act as a safety behavior for socially anxious individuals.204 B. future research to support the construct validity of the GPIUS is vital. In addition. A further limitation of the current study relates to the Generalized Problematic Internet Use Scale (GPIUS). Considering the work by Cole and Maxwell (2003). Thus. indicating only a modest contribution in terms of variance explained. the current study used a mediation analysis to assess whether preferring online social interaction was associated with an exacerbation of social avoidance. and thus caution is needed when applying online therapy to those who are susceptible to problematic internet use. in that it facilitates avoidance of more threatening face-to-face interactions. The current ﬁndings complement previous research which found an association between the use of online communication and avoidance of social interactions (Ebeling-Witte et al. stating that the internet is “no more addictive than therapy when it works as a pathway to psychological growth” (p. McKenna & Bargh. It may be that stronger or different relationships between variables will be observed in a clinical sample. the GPIUS was selected for use in the current study because it is one of the most commonly used measures in the ﬁeld. and use this knowledge to educate clients and plan therapeutic interventions. this study is limited by the cross-sectional nature of the data collected. Lee. Finally.. the ongoing debate as to whether a uni-directional or bidirectional relationship exists between social anxiety and problematic internet use (Caplan. such as impoverished face-to-face relationships. given that younger respondents were more likely to have problematic internet use which may be related to increased exposure to the internet at an earlier developmental stage. Given the paucity of available assessment measures. 2001).
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