Podcast: Sociophobia is taking hold of the young

Liu Xiaolin
Psychology professor Gao Shanchuan believes the use of the term "social phobia" reflected society's tolerance for social ineptitude.
Liu Xiaolin

Podcast: EP31

The online world has been debating the behavioral attitudes of the young. The hashtag "social phobia" has over 27 million views and 18,000 discussions on Sina Weibo, which is China's equivalent to Twitter. The Weibo users, mostly between the ages of 19 and 29, used the hashtag to share personal experiences and memes about being socially uncomfortable.

In a 2021 survey, more than 80 percent of the college students polled claimed to have struggled with or dealt with some kind of social phobia. "There are very specific criteria to determine whether a person has social anxiety disorder, or what we call social phobia," said Gao Shanchuan, a Fudan University psychology professor. She did, however, note that the use of the term "social phobia" reflected society's tolerance for social ineptitude.

Podcast: Sociophobia is taking hold of the young
Ti Gong

Fudan University psychology professor Gao Shanchuan

Q: What are the basic criteria for determining social phobia?

A: Mental illnesses are all on a spectrum. In terms of social situations, there are two extremes: social phobia and a social person, somebody who is comfortable in any situation. Most people are somewhere in the middle.

We must consider the following three factors: First, severity. It is normal to feel nervous or upset when giving a lecture or presentation in public. It is cause for concern if your anxiety spikes and your brain goes completely blank, even if you are well-prepared, or if you pass out.

If you can manage your anxiety and continue with social situations, and others cannot tell, then it is not serious.

Next, consider the duration. For example, you avoid social situations for more than six months. The third factor is to what extent it affects your life. Do you feel pain? Need assistance? Does it impair your ability to function in daily life? For example, are you stressed out about having to leave home to run errands or go to school or work because you are afraid of meeting strangers, teachers, schoolmates or colleagues?

Q: Why does 'sociophobia' appear to be a popular self-label among youth?

A: When discussing socialization, we must consider the changing times, environment, and socioculture. I interact with students, and I've noticed that many of them may be using it to avoid speaking up in public or participating in campus activities. It could be a self-defense mechanism to avoid having to blame themselves.

And it will not change the way they see themselves. People are extremely conscious of how they are perceived socially, which has an impact on their self-evaluation. They don't want to feel bad or lose confidence by embarrassing themselves in public. People used to be embarrassed to admit their anxiety in social situations, but this is no longer the case. It could be related to sociocultural change, such as the popularity of a specific subculture or foreign culture, such as otaku culture, which was influenced by Japanese animation.

They feel more at ease using social phobia as an excuse for escapism. Furthermore, the pandemic has forced people to maintain a social distance. It has had an impact on offline socializing. Also, digitalization has significantly altered our social interactions. Every day, I wake up and scroll through WeChat Moments to see what's going on with my friends. Communication is gradually shifting online, and we now have fewer opportunities to meet in person.

Q: Is socialization a major challenge for youngsters?

A: It's a challenge for children of all generations. However, social phobia commonly emerges during adolescence when young people are more concerned with their identity: "Who am I? What would I look like? What do others think of me?" It's quite normal. However, the specific problems for today's young people may be slightly different due to some abrupt changes in the social environment, such as quarantine, social distancing and the reduction of offline socializing due to the rise of the Internet.

Podcast: Sociophobia is taking hold of the young

Q: Is there any treatment?

A: Cognitive behavioral therapy is a common treatment. First, assist them in determining the source of their anxiety. Self-evaluation is usually at the heart of their concern. It is critical that they change their mindset, learn to deal with what happened in social situations and other people's judgments, and try not to look down on themselves.

Behavioral therapies, such as group therapies, include role-playing in a protective and safe environment. They could forget about their anxiety, nerves and worries with repeated practice and focus on honing their social skills. Studies show that combining medication with psychological therapy has long-term effects.

Q: Any students came to you for help?

A: Previously, as a professional therapist, I had seen cases involving social difficulties, but not to this extent. Now that I am focusing on career development, I have seen cases of students struggling in job interviews. As a result, we use group role-playing to teach students how to present themselves in competitive situations. We also recommend that teachers include class discussions in the final academic evaluation to encourage students to speak up in front of others. There are also irregular group trainings.

Q: Is socializing a learned skill?

A: It does require practice. Albert Ellis, the father of rational emotive behavior therapy, suffered from severe social anxiety. He was anxious in romantic relationships and feared rejection when pursuing. To deal with his anxiety, he set a goal of approaching and talking to 100 women in a botanical garden. That was some pretty extreme behavior, but through first-hand experience, he learned what it was like to socialize with romantic partners, and it wasn't all that bad.

Today's young people have loads of opportunities. Take them! Some might say they have social anxiety. However, none of them, as I observed, went completely blank and tongue-tied when they approached the stage. Desensitization is the process by which a fear is gradually removed through practice. There is no such thing as a good or bad personality, extrovert or introverted. People who are shy can also be social persons.

Q: After a period of online education, Shanghai students have returned to school. They may require some adjustment...

A: Not only students, but teachers also need some time to adjust. It means a new environment, new peers and even a new city, especially for freshmen.

Being with strangers is a common cause of social phobia. Orientations, experience sharing and other resources are available at colleges. Use them, and then jump in. Make an effort to meet new people, join hobby groups and practice your skills. Fear should not cause you to get cold feet.

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