With social media pervasive in teens' lives, tools like blogging may be vital in treating those who suffer from social anxiety, according to a study published by the American Psychological Association.
Researchers from the University of Haifa in Israel have found that when adolescents (ages 14-17) blogged for 10 weeks about social or emotional difficulties, their distress levels significantly decreased. This information emerges at a time when teen suicide as a result of cyber bullying has generated attention and parents have become fearful of the technology.
"It's an interesting approach," said Dr. David Castro-Blanco, a psychologist at the Adler School of Professional Psychology. "It offers some encouraging ideas because the main concern with people with social anxiety is that they believe that they are going to be judged. With a blog open to public communication it can challenge this assumption."
In the study, researchers observed six groups of adolescents who were carefully monitored as they blogged either about a topic of their choice and social distress or wrote a personal diary on their computer.
Some of the blogs were open to public commenting, however negative posts were monitored and removed, according to Dr. Azy Barak, an author of the study. After posting twice every week for 10 weeks, the teens who wrote about their social problems through a blog open to comments showed more improvement in self-esteem and distress reduction than those who only wrote a diary, the study said.
Even teens who wrote about any general topic showed improvement, which the researchers say confirms the idea that expressing feelings through a diary format can often be therapeutic. By creating an identity and expressing themselves openly online, teens can potentially overcome social stigma and anxiety, researchers said.
Teenagers in the study often wrote about feelings of loneliness, being socially rejected, fear to initiate social interaction and daydreams about being included in social groups, Barak said.
Because of the interactive nature of blogs it could provide some practical skills for teens, explained Castro-Blanco, a coordinator for the child and adolescent program at Adler. As opposed to rehearsing social exchanges in a therapy setting, exchanging communication through a blog creates an occasion to use skills that can be applied in face-to-face scenarios later, he said.
Even with the positive results from the study, the spectre of cyber bullying still looms. The study did not allow an entirely free flow of comments, as researchers removed any negative comments they encountered.
"I would definitely recommend assigning blogging to teens that experience social problems," Barak said. "This intervention, however, should be assigned to teens who like the idea and feel comfortable with writing as well as online communication, and be monitored."
With this research psychologists now have the potential to integrate a form of web therapy with individual or group counseling, Castro-Blanco said. As long as the communication is monitored, individuals with social anxiety could be treated and potentially other disorders (such as obsessive-compulsive disorder) that lead to social distress.
Despite concern over utilizing a medium that can lead to cyber bullying, psychologists and doctors have started to embrace social media as a tool for intervention. An article released by the New York Times January 9 notes that many psychologists and doctors see social media as an opportunity to help kids and adolescents. The American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Communications and Media issued a report in 2011 that emphasized the benefits of social media on children and adolescents.
"It's really a double-edged sword," Castro-Blanco said. "Opening it (the blog) up for communication makes it beneficial. However, it also means opening yourself up in a vulnerable way, which could bring those forms of nastiness or bullying.