A Zoom with a View: The Virtual Classroom Experience, Triggers for Socially Anxious Youth

 

During COVID-19 and remote learning, some kids with social anxiety are feeling especially strained when signing onto their video chats for class.

 

What is Social Anxiety?

Most kids feel some anxiety when meeting a group of new people, public speaking, or having to perform in front of others. Some youth, however, may have an intense version of this anxiety, which may indicate they have social anxiety disorder. Children with heightened levels of anxiety in social situations experience video chats as “being watched and judged negatively”.

If your child is experiencing social anxiety, he or she is not alone. Social anxiety disorder is the third most diagnosed disorder. Over 15 million Americans are diagnosed with social anxiety disorder.

What are some common social anxiety symptoms? 

People with this type of anxiety disorder often have a combination of physical, emotional, and behavioral symptoms. The symptoms and severity often vary. Some days an activity might be easier or more difficult to manage than other days, even if there isn’t a significant difference in the circumstances. Common symptoms include:

 

  • Fast heart rate
  • Pacing/Fidgety
  • Inattention/Difficulty focusing
  • Nail biting
  • Blushing
  • Sweating
  • Dizziness
  • Stomach issues
  • Dry mouth
  • Feelings that go beyond typical nervousness (including embarrassment, anxiety, fear, and panic)
  • Isolation
  • Low self-esteem
  • Negative body image and self-talk
  • Avoiding or quitting uncomfortable activities, experiences, and interactions

How does remote learning impact social anxiety? Comparing the In-Person vs. Virtual Setting

Let’s think about some of the experiential differences between the regular classroom setting and the virtual classroom.

In the regular class setting, kids are facing forward, watching the teacher. Kids who are socially anxious tend to pay more attention to themselves than to others when they are in social situations”.  During in-person interactions, kids tend to focus more on their own behaviors, such as not doing anything embarrassing, and they try to not pay as much attention to others’ appearances or listening to what others are saying. By focusing on themselves, in the in-person classroom setting, kids are making efforts to better cope with their anxiety and avoid any indication of negative judgment from others.

However, bringing those social interactions into their home throws a wrench in all these coping techniques. Kids will often resort to avoiding the situation by attending class but without turning on the screen. This may have a significant impact on their learning and on course participation requirements.

In the video chat setting of the virtual classroom, kids who are socially anxious can no longer avoid seeing others’ reactions.

  • Zoom with A View: In the virtual setting, the kids look at a screen with a large group kids staring back at them. They can see each of the kids’ expressions and reactions to the teacher’s comments but also to each other. This set-up can be a source of distress for children who are developmentally at a stage when others’ perception of them is at its utmost importance. Their social anxiety may be heightened when faced with a screen of peers staring at them all at once through their computer screen.
  • Communication, Difficulty reading others: It’s difficult to read other people’s facial expressions and body language when you aren’t in the same room. This makes it easy to worry about misunderstandings and communication issues.
  • Self perception, Low self-image: Many people with social anxiety are very critical of their own faces and voices. Video and phone communication amplify these insecurities.

Recommendations for social anxious kids having difficulties with virtual classroom:

Deep Breathing and Relaxation Techniques: Systematic Desensitization

Basically, this means take small steps to get used to the situation that is anxiety provoking, in this case, being in front of the video chat camera. Here are some tips (see additional resources below).

Step 1: Relaxation: 10-20 minutes of deep breathing alone

Step 2: Relaxation (deep breathing) AND Spend 20-30 minutes in front of the video chat camera with 1-2 people you feel comfortable with, then gradually increase the audience with slightly larger group you feel comfortable with (family members, a few friends)

Step 3: Try this several times a week and monitor until the feelings of anxiety subside or at least diminish

Step 4: Keep a log of thoughts, feelings, reactions (body reactions and activities associated with thoughts and feelings) – Is there a pattern? Are certain thoughts and feelings associated with a particular activity? This can help kids and parents gain insight into the child’s anxiety.

For information on GLIIHC Behavioral Health Services for children and teenagers, contact Child & Family Services at 414-383-9526

Dr. Isabela Sardas, Ph.D

Dr. Sardas is a Wisconsin-licensed clinical psychologist with over 25 years of experience in the treatment of childhood and adolescent psychiatric disorders using a cognitive-behavioral, multicultural and psychodynamic perspective. She obtained her training in psychology from The Cambridge Hospital-Harvard Medical School, The University of North Texas, and The University of Pennsylvania. Dr. Sardas is the recipient of the 2010 Wisconsin SBA District Director’s Award, Marquette University’s Counseling Department Human Services Partner Award, and Wisconsin Association of Child and Youth Care Professionals Dedication Award . She is a long-standing member of the American Psychological Association and National Register of Health Service Providers in Psychology. Dr. Sardas is also a Certified Child Abuse Response Specialist.  For the past 20 years, she was the Founder and Clinical Director of a child and adolescent mental health day treatment and outpatient center in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin.. Prior to this, Dr. Sardas worked in various treatment settings, including hospital-based inpatient and outpatient centers. Having many years of counseling experience, Dr. Sardas has worked with children, adolescents and adults on numerous psychological disorders including mood, anxiety and trauma-related problems.  She has previous clinical experience treating individuals with depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, trauma (PTSD), developmental disabilities, ADHD/executive function problems, and family issues.  Dr. Sardas utilizes a variety of therapeutic techniques in establishing a trusting therapeutic relationship and helping clients achieve their treatment goals. Dr. Sardas understands that everyone has strengths and everyone faces difficulties.  That’s what she appreciates about working with children, teens and their families.  She helps people identify their strengths and world views, she collaborates with them to develop strategies to address their challenges and provide personal encouragement to gain the traction needed to get started.