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Can Facebook help overcome shyness?

By Michael S. Rosenwald
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 12, 2011; 5:33 PM

Josh Chiles is shy. In a gathering of unfamiliar people, he often waits for someone, anyone, to ask him a question or make small talk.

At a party, bar or restaurant, "I just sit there, hoping someone will talk to me," he said. "I wait."

But on Facebook, the 32-year-old Woodbridge resident is Mr. Personality. He constantly refreshes his status, comments on others' updates, posts pictures, makes jokes and registers his likes. More important, when he sees his digital connections in person, he said, his shyness often disappears.

"There is no doubt that Facebook has improved my life in building relationships with other people," Chiles said.

Chiles is, in many ways, the face of a counterintuitive new stream of research examining whether social networks, particularly Facebook, are for shy people what water is for the thirsty. The studies, with titles such as "The Influence of Shyness on the Use of Facebook" and "Shyness and Online Social Networking Services," grapple with an important question: Can the Age of Oversharing bring the shy and lonely out of their cocoons?

The findings, so far, are tantalizing. Recent studies have shown that shy people are spending more time on Facebook than more socially confident people do, and that the shy report higher satisfaction with the service than do others. Shy people even say they develop closer friendships via the network than the non-shy say they do. One study, published in the journal CyberPsychology, Behavior and Social Networking, showed that the Internet and social networks helped lonely children fill "critical needs of social interactions, self-disclosure, and identity exploration."

Though some experts consider Facebook just a crutch for shy people to avoid human contact, many therapists are embracing the technology as a tool that can open social avenues for shy clients. "What we are seeing is that for a lot of shy or socially anxious people, Facebook seems to be getting the ball rolling," said Jonathan Dalton, a therapist at the Behavior Therapy Center of Greater Washington who counsels such people. "Facebook can be used more as a bridge, so to speak."

Even in the slow-connection days of dial-up Internet, the shy and lonely gravitated toward online communication. Hiding behind screen names, they communicated in chat rooms with other screen names, typing back and forth for hours. Early iterations of AOL boasted thousands of chat rooms, and use at night, after the shy and lonely came home from work, spiked. Dalton said he had clients who would tell him their best friend was someone in some distant place, someone they had never met.

Facebook, with its 600 million members, is different. Built by a known shy person - Mark Zuckerberg, who sometimes sweats profusely in TV interviews - the site encourages people to broadcast intimate details of their lives: where they are from, hobbies, favorite TV shows, relationship status, pictures of family, favorite books, jokes, views on religion and politics.

These details are the fabric of everyday conversations and the kindling for relationships. But for shy people, divulging or learning such intimate information is stress-inducing. Some might not try at all, while others might try but blush or sweat, then pull back.

"Shy people have difficulty finding topics to talk about," Dalton said. "Facebook gives you a starting point."

Social networks such as Facebook make such information available in non-threatening ways, allowing shy people to learn and share without fear of being judged on looks or whether they sweat or blush while they talk. In a study published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, Levi Baker of the University of Tennessee noted: "Given that learning about others and disclosing personal information often leads to greater intimacy, using social networking services that allow personal information exchanges may facilitate relational development."

"If you avoid people, you isolate, and if you isolate, you are lonely," said Mary Alvord, a Montgomery County psychologist with an interest in social networking. "I am all for anything that can help promote interaction, to start the process."

That was the attraction to Facebook for Ian Luria, a 27-year-old student in Arlington. He had gotten to the point of avoiding most interactions. "My shyness really prevents me from approaching people," he said.

He feels less inhibited on Facebook, where he has more than 230 friends and posts almost every day - funny videos, interesting news stories.

He even used the site to ask out a girl. She said no. Still, he asked, and that was progress.

"I think Facebook has really enhanced my life," Luria said. "It allows me to connect with people I wouldn't connect with otherwise."

Other shy Facebook users and some therapists are not as convinced of the site's benefits, pointing to the downside of relying too much on social networks.

A 33-year-old woman who works in social services in the District - she asked that her name not be published for fear of being embarrassed - said Facebook has made it easier to have conversations around the office with people whose pages she has studied on the network.

"You can see what they like, and that helps you approach them," she said. "It facilitates a conversation."

But although she's up to 180 friends on Facebook, "I still feel lonely," she said. "I don't feel like I have 180 friends. It's not like I have 180 friends that I can go hang out with. I don't think I have this great social life because I have 180 friends."

Indeed, Baker's study found that even though Facebook deepened relationships, many shy users still reported feeling lonely. Experts suggest that this could be because some shy people use Facebook as a crutch, feeling more comfortable with digital friends than personal ones.

Facebook may be better at easing shy people's discomfort with people they know than making them at ease with people generally.

"Someone who uses Facebook might be less anxious with that person face-to-face, but they may not be learning to feel less anxious when meeting other people at a party or church or an athletic game," said Larry Cohen, a District social worker who counsels shy and socially anxious people. "In fact, anxiety might increase in those cases" because the people don't have the information they glean from Facebook to fall back on.

Cohen said he has seen anxiety increase among some clients who use Facebook because they focus too much on how many friends they have, or worry that others aren't posting enough items on their walls, or fret about what to write in their status updates, just as they agonize over what to say in person.

Cohen suggests to clients that beyond using Facebook, they should sign up for services such as Meetup.com, which arranges in-person meetings for strangers with common interests. In the District, there is even a Meetup group for the shy or socially anxious.

"Overall, I think Facebook is a mixed bag," Cohen said. "The benefits are more obvious, apparent and immediate. But the downsides, at least at first, tend to be less obvious and deeper in the long run. We are really just beginning to understand all of this."

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