Social anxiety and bullying have become common in youth. Are you thinking about how to reduce this problem? Read on to know about new research on tipping points in changing social networks.
Written by: Todd B. Kashdan
Being “outed” as a psychologist has consequences. You will hear stories from acquaintances and strangers, lots of them. I walk my 7-year old daughter to elementary school each morning, hug her goodbye, and watch her happily skip through the hallways. As soon as I turn around, another parent will try to grab free advice in 2 minutes or less. “Hey, you have a second?”
- “I feel compelled to lick my fingers and rub them all over my elbows. Which is weird because I don’t even like the texture of the skin around my elbows. What’s up with that?”
- “My husband is a narcissist and psychopath. What do I do?”
- “My romantic relationship is amazing, so why am I into tentacle porn?”
A job hazard of being a psychologist is that you learn things about the underbelly of humanity that nobody else knows. One topic appears to be increasing in frequency: The number of people who mention that they suffer from social anxiety, or that their kids do, or both. What’s interesting is that there is a sociological trend in which people are becoming less comfortable in social situations and more likely to avoid face-to-face conversations.
A close examination of 8,098 15-54-year-olds from the United States demonstrates that diagnoses of social anxiety disorder are increasingly common. For instance, people born in 1966-1975 are showing a steep rise in the prevalence of social anxiety disorder, and the onset is much earlier than previous generations.
Scientists don’t know exactly why social anxiety is becoming commonplace but there are a few culprits. There has been greater geographical mobility such that people are apt to move away from close family and friends for work. By switching communities, attempts to rebuild a secure base of safety, security, and belonging becomes an omnipresent milestone. It’s harder to make close friends in adulthood, especially for men.
Then there is everyone’s favorite boogeyman: the advent of smartphones and social media. A scientific controversy exists with some researchers pointing out that anxiety, depression, eating disorders, compromised well-being, and a preference for pork rinds are the direct result of carrying smartphones whereas other scientists cast doubt on any connection between smartphones and psychological functioning of teenagers.
Read the studies hyperlinked above and you can decide. Another mechanism that might account for the rise in social anxiety is a decline in community institutions such as regular attendance at religious services. Without regular, meaningful social interactions where social support is prevalent, the social world is a much less stable, uncertain place.
Rather than spend time on why social anxiety is pervasive, I wanted to share neglected research on how to treat this problem, particularly in youth. It is important to help kids early because an earlier onset of social anxiety disorder interferes with a critical period when social skills develop.
When a kid suffers from social anxiety difficulties they are less likely to experiment with initiating and maintaining conversations (impeding positive relations with others); less likely to ask questions when intrigued or confused in class (impeding learning), and less likely to invest in activities that they enjoy as opposed to what they think will gain social approval (impeding the development of a strong identity and passionate interests). The fear that perceived flaws in one’s character will be visible to other people and the cause of scrutiny and rejection prevents people from being the author of their own lives.
Several treatments exist for social anxiety disorder.
One that has fascinated me is Social Effectiveness Therapy (SET) by Deborah Beidel and Samuel Turner.
Social Effectiveness Therapy (SET)
The goal of SET is to reduce social fears, improve social skills, and increase the willingness to approach instead of avoiding social situations.