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Jaren Wilkey/BYU
People who avoid social situations and use high amounts of "problematic media" like violent video games stunt their social development and may have other problem behaviors down the line, BYU research says.

It's a classic and familiar avoidance technique to many older teens and young adults: Instead of accepting a social invitation where one might feel shy or out of place, the person stays home. If that individual decides to pass the time instead with problematic media like pornography, gambling or violent video games, that social withdrawal can take on a life of its own.

When this becomes a pattern, the ability to interact with others can be stunted over time, according to a new study led by Brigham Young University professor of family life Larry Nelson. Choices young adults make about how they use their time and whether they work on developing social skills can have direct and lasting impact. The study is published in the journal Developmental Psychology.

The researchers found the more often an individual avoided interaction by retreating into solitary use of "problematic media," the more shy and withdrawn he or she became over time. It's called "problematic" because previous research shows frequent use of this type of media — pornography, gambling or violent video games are some examples — is associated with negative outcomes such as depression or substance abuse. In this study, Nelson said, the risk was the combination of avoiding social situations and using problematic media a lot.

"In no way would I be saying that all video game or problematic media use is bad," Nelson said. "But if you have an individual who is already struggling with social interaction and combine that tendency with problematic media, it's not a good fit."

Three kinds of 'shy'

Being withdrawn is not inherently bad — and it doesn't always look the same, either, Nelson said. "We kind of categorize all quiet, withdrawn people as shy or introverted. Socially, people fall in different places on an approach-avoidance model. ... They have different reasons for being nonsocial — and different outcomes." He calls it "approach-avoidance," meaning whether people deliberately engage with others or avoid them.

The first group of introverts are those who are just shy and may avoid socializing because they're afraid of something, like not knowing anyone at a party, although they'd like to be more outgoing.

A second group is "unsociable," meaning they are fine in social situations and know how to interact but would rather be alone. They might turn down an invitation and instead read a book or take a bubble bath, Nelson said.

The third category of introvert, those called "avoidant," try hard to stay away from social interactions. They have little motivation to approach others. This is the group that most often suffers long-term impact from frequent problematic media use.

The study authors noted different opinions and research about introverts and how they use media. One view is that not all media use is bad; some shy people may use social media, for example, to improve social skills and connect with others. Others suggest to get any benefit from social media, one must already have strong social skills. There are "reasons to believe that media use by emerging adults has the potential to both positively and negatively impact withdrawn individuals," the researchers wrote.

However, "the avoidant group played substantially more video games, violent video games, gambled (including online) and viewed more pornography than shy, unsociable or nonwithdrawn participants," the study said. The researchers didn't find significant differences in use of problematic media among those not classified as "avoidant."

The avoidant subjects' problematic media use was linked to depression and negative behaviors like crime and substance abuse a year later, an outcome that didn't happen with their shy and unsociable peers.

Nelson told the Deseret News that quantity mattered: The risk grew as the amount of time spent with problematic media increased. Even youths who weren't particularly shy or unsociable became more withdrawn over time if they spent a lot of time viewing pornography, playing violent video games or gambling.

Brain formation

Young adulthood is a crucial developmental period, said Paul Hokemeyer, a family therapist from New York City who was not involved in the research. The human brain develops until around age 22 (some experts say as late as mid-20s). He said the prefrontal cortex, key to personality development and executive functions like planning, is still being built into the 20s and is "of particular importance in developing social skills and in the ability to function as a healthy, happy adult."

The study shows that "by engaging in habits that prove to be unhealthy long-term to manage uncomfortable emotional stages, young adults are not maturing into healthy and productive adults," he said.

Hokemeyer's counseling practice includes young adults with anxiety, many coping in unhealthy ways, including excessive technology use that interferes with other important activities like interacting with others. Among long-term effects are substance abuse, poor impulse control and engaging in compulsive activities.

To help clients manage anxiety, he uses tools like cognitive behavioral therapy, which helps them identify a thought ("I don't want to go to the party") that triggers an emotion (anxiety) that starts the problematic behavior ("I'll just surf porn or play violent video games instead").

The goal is to create a strategy that intervenes at each point, Hokemeyer said. Instead of staying home with video games, an anxious person might go to the party for 30 minutes, with the goal of talking to three people. "Come up with very distinct parameters and put boundaries around it," he said. He tells people to reward themselves with something that provides positive reinforcement and then build on progress.

That rewires the brain from negative behaviors to creating constructive ones. The good news, he said, is neuroplasticity science, which suggests the brain can change. But it is critically important to address issues in adolescence and young adulthood while the brain is still developing.

Nelson said avoidant behavior can be seductive, because no one wants to be uncomfortable.

"We didn't use an extreme group. Our subjects weren't those in counseling or those who committed sexual crimes. I just think it becomes easier to keep doing easy things, especially emerging adulthood is the first time no one's watching. No parents monitoring or teachers saying, 'Where was your child today?' They get to be arbiters of what they do with their time.

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"My biggest hope is that people will be honest with themselves about the wisdom of how they choose to spend their time. ... Are you balancing your leisure activities with growth-promoting activities? It's a good question for all of us, but it's especially important for emerging adults."

The study is based on surveys a year apart of 204 undergraduate students, both male and female, average age 20.7, from two large public universities. Among the study's limitations, Nelson said, is all the participants were in college. He said more research is needed to see the impact in a more diverse population.

Email: lois@deseretnews.com, Twitter: Loisco