Differences in Perceived Online Communication and Disclosing E-Motions among Adolescents and Young Adults: The Role of Specific Social Media Features and Social Anxiety


Federica Angelini, University of Padova, Italy
Gianluca Gini, University of Padova, Italy


Social media are widely used by adolescents and young adults as a mean to communicate and maintain interpersonal relationships, especially with friends. To date, research on online communication has mainly focused on its potential effects on psychosocial well-being, to understand whether digital interactions hinder or enrich youngsters’ social relationships. However, little attention has been devoted to the fact that some may benefit from online interactions more than others because of individual and contextual factors. For example, while communication on social media is attractive to everyone because it provides a more comfortable environment that may encourage self-presentation and self-disclosure, this could be particularly true for those experiencing social anxiety, who can compensate online for communication difficulties encountered offline. Social anxiety, in fact, is characterized by an intense fear of being criticized or negatively evaluated, to the extent of avoiding social situations, thus impacting daily social functioning (APA, 2013). In this study we rely on the tenets of the Transformation Framework (Nesi et al., 2018), according to which social media, with its own features, may transform social relationships, including disclosing emotions and communicating with others online, in ways that may differ across individuals. Specifically, we focused on the potential role of unique characteristics of social media (i.e., asynchronicity, cue absence, and visualness) to investigate emotional online processes underlying perceived breadth and depth of communication on social media, compared to the in-person one, among groups of individuals with high vs. low levels of social anxiety.


Participants were 1046 Italian adolescents and young adults (61.4% females; mean age =17.9 years) who completed an anonymous self-report questionnaire between 2021 and 2022. The hypothesized associations were compared across group of participants with very high scores on social anxiety (socially anxious) and socially non-anxious one.


Results showed significant differences between the two groups, partially confirming our hypotheses. Specifically, the perceived characteristic of cue absence on social media, (i.e., the degree of absence of nonverbal social cues during online communication), was found to benefit perceived online communication among socially anxious; conversely, these associations were negative in the group of socially non-anxious. Similarly, perceived asynchronicity (i.e., the time lapse between aspects of online communication) was found to enhance online emotional processes among socially anxious and to hinder them in the other group.


Although online communication may be easier to some extent, most people with no difficulties during social interactions may perceive cue absence and asynchronicity to hinder the quality of mediated communication. Conversely, social media environment may become beneficial for socially anxious young individuals, which struggle with relational difficulties during face-to-face interactions; engaging in online communication through social media platforms, indeed, allows them to easily manage the richness of social cues they want to convey, thus reducing their exposure to what usually triggers their anxiety and providing them with a greater sense of control over social interactions. Therefore, these findings contribute to explain youth’s online experiences and support the potential beneficial role of unique social media features for those more socially vulnerable.

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