A lot has been written about the use of smartphones in social situations – it is the pet peeve of many. People often find it irritating to have a conversation (or eat a meal, watch a film, etc.) with someone who is constantly tapping away at their phone. In this blog I will look at the issue from a slightly different perspective. For those with social anxiety, smartphone use may actually be maintaining their problem.
A safety behavior is an action taken to manage one’s anxiety by exerting (perceived) control over a social situation. It is a behavior or action that is taken in order to prevent the core fear – being negatively judged by other people. Checking your smartphone is a perfect example that seems to be becoming increasingly common. People may do it to avoid something they fear: uncomfortable conversations, meeting new people, awkward silences, etc. In many cases they are worried that they won’t be able to “perform” in the social situation. In other cases, they may want to look important by being online and connected 24/7.
The problem with safety behaviors is that they tend to make the problem worse. On one hand, since it is an avoidance behavior, anxiety is maintained since it is never challenged. Sometimes uncomfortable conversations turn into interesting ones, sometimes awkward silences are followed by deep and meaningful comments, and sometimes when you meet new people you find a friend for life. Being on a smartphone can take away these opportunities. Also, if the social situation goes well despite being on a smartphone, one might wrongly attribute the positive outcome to the smartphone!
To illustrate another point, consider the following scenario:
Alice goes to a party where she doesn’t know many people. She is very anxious, and is worried that the other people at the party will not like her. She spends a lot of time sending text messages, as she hopes this will demonstrate that she is a social person with a wide group of friends. The other people at the party make no effort to engage with Alice, as it looks to them like she has no interest in being there.
As you can see, the safety behavior (checking the phone) is the very reason why people are judging Alice negatively.
I should note that not all smartphone use in social situations is a safety behavior, as it depends on the reason why people are using their phone. There are many other reasons why someone may use their phone, such as bad habit or addiction (I will save that for another blog).
Our social anxiety treatment program can help you identify and challenge maladaptive safety behaviors. I encourage you to think about your actions, and try turning your smartphone off next time you are at a party. Not only are you less likely to be perceived as uninterested in the social situation, I guarantee you will have a richer experience, and you are a lot more likely to make a good impression on other people!
Fjola Helgadottir, PhD, CPsychol, is a clinical psychologist, a senior research clinician at the University of Oxford, and is a co-creator of AI-Therapy.com, an online CBT treatment program for overcoming social anxiety