Scholars and the popular press have suggested that the diagnostic entity of social phobia “medicalizes” normal human shyness. In this study we examined the plausibility of this hypothesis by (1) determining the frequency of shyness and its overlap with social phobia in a nationally representative adolescent sample, (2) investigating the degree to which shyness and social phobia differ with regard to sociodemographic characteristics, functional impairment, and psychiatric comorbidity, and (3) examining differences in rates of prescribed medication use among youth with shyness and/or social phobia.
The National Comorbidity Survey-Adolescent Supplement is a nationally representative, face-to-face survey of 10 123 adolescents, aged 13 to 18 years, in the continental United States. Lifetime social phobia was assessed by using a modified version of the fully structured World Health Organization Composite International Diagnostic Interview. Adolescents and parents also provided information on youth shyness and prescribed medication use.
Only 12% of the youth who identified themselves as shy also met the criteria for lifetime social phobia. Relative to adolescents who were characterized as shy, adolescents affected with social phobia displayed significantly greater role impairment and were more likely to experience a multitude of psychiatric disorders, including disorders of anxiety, mood, behavior, and substance use. However, those adolescents were no more likely than their same-age counterparts to be taking prescribed medications.
The results of this study provide evidence that social phobia is an impairing psychiatric disorder, beyond normal human shyness. Such findings raise questions concerning the “medicalization” hypothesis of social phobia.