An Archival Look at Being Alone Versus Being Lonely: Impact on Social Anxiety Posts on Reddit

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Given the global COVID pandemic, people are isolating and reducing social contact in unprecedented ways. As individuals experience loneliness, they also may exhibit social anxiety, possibly due to a reduced sense of security while feeling vulnerable. (Hawkley & Cacioppo, 2016). However, despite this relationship, research is unclear if social anxiety is associated with being alone (i.e., absence of others) or the added condition of loneliness, otherwise defined as the perception of social needs not being fulfilled (Hawkley & Cacioppo, 2016). We conducted two naturalistic-observational designs to compare social anxiety posts of Reddit users who were responding to posts about loneliness or being alone. The first study compared lonely individuals to those with a more positive perception of being alone. Sixty participants (33.33% male, 18.33% female, 48.33% unknown) were sampled from Reddit, a forum-based community. Participants were coded as lonely if they responded to a Reddit page asking how to cope with loneliness, while individuals were coded as being alone if they responded to a Reddit page asking if alone time is healthy. The second study compared social anxiety amongst lonely individuals surrounded by others and lonely individuals while alone. Once again, 60 participants were sampled from Reddit. We coded participants as lonely with others if they responded to a page describing loneliness in the presence of others or lonely and alone based on a page detailing acceptance of the two. Social anxiety was coded based on the frequency of social anxiety symptoms (e.g., withdrawal, embarrassment, etc.) present in each sentence within each participant's comment. Study one results indicate a medium to large effect of loneliness (t(34.1) = 2.85, p < .05, d = .74), such that lonely individuals expressed greater social anxiety compared to alone participants. The results of the second study also found a medium effect of loneliness (t(58) = 2.07, p < .05, d = .53) as lonely individuals surrounded by others described more social anxiety comments than those who are lonely and alone. Overall, there is a medium effect size concerning both studies. Consequently, these findings are consistent with past research regarding loneliness being correlated with social anxiety (Acquah et al., 2016; Gallagher et al., 2014). Additionally, results are compatible with the theory that loneliness is associated with negative effects while being alone is a neutral state that can potentially lead to positive feelings (Buchholz & Catton, 1999). Future research may explore demographic traits that differ between individuals who are alone and lonely and how these potential personality traits relate back to social anxiety. Furthermore, research may investigate if there are more conscious mechanisms that alone people employ to reduce loneliness. Consequently, this may be implemented in intervention across susceptible groups to loneliness, such as minorities, as they may perceive a social disconnect with others due to dissimilarity. More globally, intervention may examine how to combat the loneliness the COVID pandemic has forced upon individuals (Loades et al., 2020).