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Are Mobile Phones Helping or Hurting Shy Kids?
Most families have at least one shy child who is a bit more reserved and less socially confident than the others. As a clinical psychologist specialising in technology use among teens, and a mother of two teenagers of my own, I speak to a lot of parents who wonder if their shy child’s mobile phone could be a much-needed lifeline to making social connections or whether it’s causing them to withdraw further.
The research is clear that as kids’ online world expands, their offline world shrinks. So we do need to be aware of the absolute amount of time shy children spend online and whether they hide behind their phones when they are outside with others.
As humans, we share a need to ‘belong’ – that’s why one of the telephone companies has used it as their name, and often we see the word used in marketing tag lines. We want to connect with others, to be cared about and thought about. We call this a need to ‘relate’.
A 2019 study showed that when shy teenagers fill this need to relate through online connections, they reduce their offline connections, and end up more addicted to their phones. Online disinhibition describes the tendency to feel more comfortable talking about personal things online than we would in real life. Some say it happens because we feel anonymous, but it also might occur because we don’t witness the other person’s facial feedback, so we take more risks.
It is also important to understand the difference between shyness and social anxiety. Shyness means that a child doesn’t like being in the spotlight — it is a personality characteristic. For a shy child, social situations do not cause lasting distress and the child is able to participate in social activities like go to a party or after school activity. They may feel a little uncomfortable at the beginning (as many of us would), but those feelings go away.
Social anxiety differs in that the child usually worries about what others think of them, and the child suffers from physical signs of anxiety (aspects of the fight or flight response) in social situations. A child with social anxiety endures social activities with intense distress or avoids them altogether.
Anxiety is known to be a gateway disorder for other mental health difficulties in adulthood, so, as a child, if you have an anxiety disorder (eg. social anxiety), you are more likely to have depression or other mental health problems as an adolescent and adult.
This is another good reason for parents to be in tune with whether our children are avoiding face-to-face social situations and instead choosing to hide behind a phone. While gaming (or other online skills) may improve, conversational and face to face social skills can fall away.
If we carry a phone and have the mindset that it is fine to use it, a socially anxious person will pull it out while speaking with another person or be quite content to sit on the sidelines and distract themselves from their anxiety using their phone. They may be so used to this coping strategy that they don’t feel the anxiety at all.
The problem is that they are not learning to overcome their anxiety and they are not building their face to face social skills. The other kids start to think that the child is not interested in being part of the social group and don’t bother making an effort.
Research shows that people who overuse their phones derive less satisfaction from other people’s company than people who are not addicted to their phones, so actually, children who are addicted are less likely to enjoy being with other people to start with.
The takeaways for parents:
- If you have a shy child, notice how much they use their phone when in the company of other people.
- Be aware of what is happening to them in their life — make time that to check in with them in private in a de-pressured environment (eg. Late at night before bed, driving, play one of their games with them or even start a Netflix series together). Notice whether they have one-on-one time with you or your partner.
- If they like to withdraw into an online world, work out what issues they may be avoiding. Be conscious of what real-world activities give them a sense of satisfaction and look for opportunities to help them build these.
- Take steps to prioritise screen limits for the whole family. These are tech rules that suit your family and will draw you all together. This is not easy, but it is an important part of parenting. The first step is to ensure your partner is on board. If you are struggling to do this, have a look at my blog on this topic, or at the website which has a 20-minute podcast on why to put the limits in place.
You can also grab a copy of my short book The Dip, which contains a step-by-step guide for tackling screen time limits with your family.
Dr Danielle Einstein is a clinical psychologist, researcher and author specialising in understanding the impact of devices on mental health in teenagers. She is an Adjunct Fellow at Macquarie University and an Honorary Associate with the University of Sydney. Danielle is the creator of The Dip – a practical guide to taking control of screen addiction and reconnecting your family.
Hong, W., Liu, R., Oei, T., Zhen, R., Jiang, S., & Sheng, X. (2019). The mediating and moderating roles of social anxiety and relatedness need satisfaction on the relationship between shyness and problematic mobile phone use among adolescents. Computers In Human Behavior, 93, 301-308. doi: 10.1016/j.chb.2018.12.020
Rotondi, V., Stanca, L., & Tomasuolo, M. (2017). Connecting alone: Smartphone use, quality of social interactions, Journal of Economic Psychology, 63, 17- 26.