Social Withdrawal in Childhood
Process whereby children remove themselves from opportunities for social interaction and engage in solitary activities in the presence of peers.
Interacting with others is an integral part of childhood. Making new friends, playing with a group of peers, and being liked and accepted by classmates all represent critical and formative experiences for children. For most children and adolescents, the considerable amount of time spent in the presence of peers is not only perceived as enjoyable and fulfilling but also serves to provide opportunities to learn and refine important social, emotional, cognitive, and linguistic skills. Notwithstanding, some children still choose to engage in solitary activities in lieu of social interaction with peers. Social withdrawal refers to the process of removing oneself from opportunities to interact with others (Rubin et al. 2009). The concept of social withdrawal extends beyond the broad notion of a physical separation from others and involves a complex combination of motivational, emotional, and cognitive factors. For example, for some children, social interaction may elicit powerful feelings of anxiety. In contrast, others may seek out solitude for its own enjoyment. Regardless of the underlying reasons for not engaging with peers, social withdrawal is implicated in social maladjustment across childhood, and excessive social isolation may have severe consequences for children’s social, emotional, and psychological well-being.
Defining Social Withdrawal
Social withdrawal is an umbrella term that encapsulates a range of behaviors and motivations associated with removing oneself from opportunities for social interaction (Rubin et al. 2009). This construct is meant to be distinct from the process of active isolation, whereby children are ostracized or excluded by peers (thus preventing them from engaging in social interactions) (Rubin and Mills 1988). However, these appear to be transactional processes that influence each other over time (Rubin et al. 1991). For example, individuals may respond to social ostracism by seeking out solitude (Ren et al. 2016). Likewise, socially withdrawn behaviors may elicit negative peer responses, including peer rejection and victimization (Coplan et al. 2015b).
Children may be motivated to withdraw from others for a variety of reasons, which can have specific implications for their social adjustment and well-being. For instance, some socially withdrawn children experience elevated fear, anxiety, and self-consciousness in social situations and may avoid social interaction to alleviate these negative emotions (Crozier 1995). Alternatively, other children engage in solitary activities, not out of social wariness, but because they find solitude intrinsically rewarding and enjoyable (Coplan and Weeks 2010). Notwithstanding these underlying motivations, there is reason to be concerned about social withdrawal in childhood. From an evolutionary perspective, social interaction is adaptive because it facilitates social bonding and individual happiness. Consequently, frequent social withdrawal in childhood is viewed as maladaptive because it may pose substantial risks for children’s socio-emotional adjustment and well-being.
Social Withdrawal as Evolutionarily Maladaptive
A strong case has been made for considering childhood social withdrawal as evolutionarily maladaptive. In this section, we consider these arguments at both the level of the species (e.g., notions of natural and sexual selection) and the individual (e.g., concurrent and predictive implications for the child).
Survival and Reproduction
Humans are fundamentally social beings, capable of forming complex social hierarchies and intimate social bonds. This penchant for social interaction is considered to have been an essential ingredient for the survival and proliferation of our species (Campbell 1983). Cooperation promotes survival, resource exchange, and abundance and fuels the growth of large-scale communities (see Reeve, Evolution of Cooperation). Additionally, interpersonal communication fosters intimacy and trustworthiness (see Scalise Sugiyama, Gossip and Grooming Hypothesis). Failing to partake in social rituals may result in reduced social status in the community or outright ostracization.
Moreover, as evidenced among human and many nonhuman species (e.g., great apes), a disposition toward social dominance and assertiveness is favorable to siring offspring, thus increasing the prevalence of such traits in the population (see Moore, Starkey, & Benjamin, Dominance in Humans). Those lacking such traits would have diminished access to resources (e.g., food and protection) and fewer opportunities to mate due to decreased sexual competitiveness (particularly under stressful circumstances, e.g., Boyce et al. 1998). Taken together, evolutionary reasoning supports the view that sociability and assertiveness are assets for both an organism’s survival and their ability to reproduce and pass on their genes.
Childhood Peer Interactions and Relationships
Social withdrawal is also viewed as maladaptive because of its potentially adverse impact on children’s interactions and relationships with peers. Children’s early peer interactions lay the groundwork for the acquisition of social competencies, while the formation of peer relationships further strengthens social skills and facilitates optimal adjustment (Rubin et al. 2015). As such, children who consistently eschew opportunities to play with others in favor of solitary play may miss out on formative social experiences integral to the development of social skills (Rubin et al. 2009). This may contribute to further social isolation as these children may lack confidence in their abilities to engage with peers.
Moreover, socially withdrawn children tend to garner more negative reactions from peers. Social expectations and norms regarding the quantity (and quality) of peer interactions rise steadily from early childhood to adolescence (Rubin et al. 2015). By late childhood, peer interaction is clearly the norm. For example, Coplan et al. (2015b) observed children in grades 4–7 in the schoolyard over recess and lunch and reported that, on average, children interacted with a peer or peers more than 90% of the time. Thus, withdrawing from the peer group in this context is likely to be viewed as socially deviant. Societal expectations and norms regarding social interactions may help explain why withdrawal appears to be more problematic for boys compared to girls (Doey et al. 2014). Indeed, shy boys tend to garner more negative responses from peers and experience more peer exclusion and rejection (Gazelle and Ladd 2003; Spangler and Gazelle 2009). It is hypothesized that withdrawn behaviors violate typical gender norms ascribing assertiveness and dominance among boys, contributing to more negative reactions from peers (Doey et al. 2014).
It should not be surprising that socially withdrawn children are often isolated by peers (Spangler and Gazelle 2009). This can lead to a transactional process whereby peer rejection and exclusion exacerbate children’s retreat into social withdrawal, which in turn serves to further promote negative peer experiences (Rubin et al. 1991). Moreover, when socially withdrawn children do form friendships, these relationships tend to be of lesser quality as compared to their more sociable counterparts (Pedersen et al. 2007; Rubin et al. 2006). This also appears to hold true in the context of romantic relationships, with socially withdrawn adolescents having fewer and less intense romantic partnerships (Boisvert and Poulin 2016).
Peer difficulties among socially withdrawn children also extend beyond isolation and rejection to more overt victimization (Hanish and Guerra 2004). Victimizers may view socially withdrawn children as “easy targets” given that they are sometimes perceived to be physically “weak” and less likely to retaliate when confronted (Rubin et al. 2006). Additionally, deficiencies in social skills may expose these children to further mockery and ridicule, thus perpetuating a reciprocal relation between social withdrawal and peer rejection (Greco and Morris 2001).
Taken together, social withdrawal appears to have an adverse effect on how children interact with and are treated by their peers. Particularly in late childhood where peer play is especially prevalent (Coplan et al. 2015b), solitude is likely to be perceived as atypical. In addition, frequent bouts of solitary play may hinder the acquisition and refinement of social competencies necessary for forming relationships with peers.
Happiness, Health, and Individual Well-Being
A final reason that social withdrawal may be maladaptive is that, overall, time spent with others makes us happier and healthier than time spent in solitude (see Coplan et al. in press-b, for a recent review). For example, simply being alone is associated with elevated levels of the hormone cortisol, which is implicated in feelings of stress (Matias et al. 2011). Moreover, most people just do not like spending time in solitude. Indeed, in a series of recent experiments, Wilson et al. (2014) demonstrated that most university students opt to self-administer electric shocks instead of being left alone with their thoughts for 15 min. Further, frequent solitude is tied to feelings of loneliness (Hawkley and Cacioppo 2010). Loneliness arises from a perceived dissatisfaction with the quantity and/or quality of one’s social relations (Cacioppo et al. 2015). Socially withdrawn children may become increasingly lonely with age as they develop more sophisticated self-concepts based on their relative social standing among peers (Lempinen et al. 2017; Qualter et al. 2015). Loneliness can also have long-term detrimental consequences for one’s physical and mental health. Indeed, loneliness is associated with heightened cardiovascular problems, substance abuse, and mortality, as well as depression and chronic stress (Hawkley and Cacioppo 2010).
In contrast, interacting with others is generally associated with positive moods (Vittengl and Holt 2000). Experimental evidence suggests that social situations are perceived as more satisfying and enjoyable compared to nonsocial situations (Epley and Schroeder 2014; Sandstrom and Dunn 2013). Furthermore, even dispositionally introverted individuals report substantial positive feelings following social interaction (Zelenski et al. 2013). Scholars have historically espoused the view that humans have an innate psychological need to interact with others (Baumeister and Leary 1995; Maslow 1943), and people report greater life satisfaction and meaningfulness when they regularly engage in social interaction and partake in social activities (Demir et al. 2011). Similarly, children who have frequent, positive interactions with family and peers report greater happiness and a more positive self-concept compared to children who have fewer social interactions (Holder and Coleman 2009). Thus, the potential negative effects of social withdrawal on happiness and well-being are twofold: (1) being alone is associated with momentary decreases in happiness, and (2) excessive solitude is linked with loneliness and appears to have severe consequences for health and well-being.
Can Certain Subtypes of Social Withdrawal Be Adaptive?
To this point, we have focused on the myriad of potential reasons why the broad construct of social withdrawal might be considered evolutionarily maladaptive in childhood. However, as we have noted, social withdrawal itself is a multifaceted phenomenon that is now widely considered as comprising varying emotional and motivational substrates (Coplan et al. 2015a). Simply stated, there are several different reasons why children might withdraw from opportunities for social interaction, and these varying motivations can have substantially different implications for children’s social adjustment and well-being. For example, some children may socially withdraw because they experience unpleasant feelings in unfamiliar social situations. Children who are shy experience fear and wariness toward social novelty, as well as self-consciousness in situations of perceived social evaluation (Coplan et al. 2004). Shy children are also thought to experience an approach-avoidance conflict, whereby their desire to engage in social interaction is simultaneously inhibited by fear and anxiety (Asendorpf 1990). Shy children often have difficulty integrating into peer groups and may, instead, engage in onlooking behaviors during instances of peer play (i.e., watching without joining in) (Coplan et al. 1994).
Shyness is a risk factor for social adjustment difficulties throughout childhood and adolescence (Rubin et al. 2009). In particular, shy children are more prone to internalizing problems (Karevold et al. 2012), which involve retreating from one’s environment and engaging in inwardly focused behaviors (Achenbach and Edelbrock 1981). Overall, as compared to their more sociable counterparts, shy children are more likely to experience anxious and depressive symptomology, as well as feelings of loneliness and low self-worth. Indeed, extreme shyness in childhood is one of the best predictors of later social anxiety disorder (Clauss and Blackford 2012).
Shyness, as a trait, is relatively enduring within the population, with estimates suggesting that roughly 15% of children are born with a predisposition toward heightened wariness (i.e., behavioral inhibition; Kagan et al. 1988), which is a precursor for social withdrawal (Chronis-Tuscano et al. 2009). Evolutionarily speaking, socially withdrawn traits would not likely have evolved to exist in humans if they were completely detrimental. One often cited advantage of heightened wariness is its survival value. Among animals across a range of taxa, shy-like traits (i.e., greater reactivity to novel stimuli) promote behaviors that reduce the likelihood of predation (Verbeek et al. 1994). Organisms predisposed to flee from potentially threatening situations had a greater chance of avoiding predation and passing on these genes. As such, heightened sensitivity to novelty is suggested to have evolved as a survival strategy (LeDoux 2000).
To a certain extent, this is evident among infants and toddlers exhibiting stranger anxiety – a tendency to avoid unfamiliar others (Mangelsdorf et al. 1995). As another example, Colonnesi et al. (2014) suggest that certain behavioral displays of shyness such as a coy smile (i.e., the combination of smiling, avoiding eye contact, and tilting the head) can serve an adaptive function by reducing social tensions in potentially stressful situations (e.g., encountering a stranger). However, avoiding threatening situations is not synonymous with avoiding social interaction, and it has been argued that social withdrawal emerged as a by-product of evolutionarily driven mechanisms for heightened threat detection (LeDoux 2000).
Notwithstanding, some children may also socially withdraw because of an intrinsic, non-fearful preference for solitude. This type of social withdrawal is referred to as unsociability, social disinterest, and/or affinity for aloneness and is believed to be a relatively benign form of social withdrawal (Asendorpf 1990; Coplan et al. 2004). Moreover, emerging evidence suggests that non-fearful solitude seeking may be adaptive for some aspects of individual well-being, particularly among adolescents and young adults (Goossens 2014).
Although direct empirical evidence remains sparse (Coplan et al. in press-b), it continues to be argued that spending time alone can also promote intellectual, creative, and spiritual growth while reducing stress and anxiety (Korpela and Staats 2014; Long et al. 2003). In childhood, occasional solitary play promotes regulatory and exploratory behaviors, as well as facilitating identity formation (Galanaki et al. 2015; Katz and Buchholz 1999). Preschool children who engage in more constructive forms of solitary play score higher on measures of creativity and divergent thinking (Lloyd and Howe 2003). Moreover, researchers speculate that the benefits associated with solitude become more salient over time in concordance with developments in identity and peer relations (Larson 1997). In early childhood, stronger social pressures to engage in group play may undermine the potential benefits of solitude, but advantages of spending time alone may emerge among older children with increasing positive and sophisticated views of solitude.
Despite these assertions, it remains unclear as to whether the proposed benefits (or lack thereof) of solitude in childhood can be attributed to those with a trait-level affinity for solitude, compared to the actual state of being alone. Excessive social withdrawal in children, regardless of whether it is motivated by an affinity for solitude, still warrants concern as it poses significant risks for children’s social adjustment and well-being. Children who perpetually choose solitary play in place of peer interaction may fall behind in their development of social skills compared to their more sociable counterparts (Rubin et al. 2015).
Future Directions: Considering Context
Until now, this summary has largely focused on social withdrawal within the broader context of adaptive versus maladaptive outcomes in childhood and how these may vary as a function of children’s social motivations. However, environmental and social contexts also play integral roles in defining attitudes toward socially withdrawn behaviors, which ultimately impact outcomes associated with social withdrawal. This final section addresses (1) the role of culture in children’s social withdrawal and (2) how computer-mediated communication (e.g., texting, social networking, etc.) is actively changing the meaning of solitude and its implications for socially withdrawn children.
Research on social withdrawal and its concomitants was traditionally limited to predominately affluent Western populations. However, there is burgeoning interest in the meaning and socio-emotional impact of childhood social withdrawal across cultures. Culture plays an important role in shaping attitudes and beliefs about social behaviors (Chen and French 2008). As such, certain cultures may view socially withdrawn behaviors in children more or less positively, which in turn can influence its implications for socio-emotional adjustment and well-being.
For example, traditional Chinese society values group harmony and cohesion over assertiveness and independence, which helps to explain why Chinese parents, teachers, and peers have historically been more accepting of children’s shyness (Chen et al. 1995; Oyserman et al. 2002). Consequently, shyness was formerly associated with greater academic success and led to comparatively fewer instances of peer rejection (Chen et al. 1995). However, ongoing shifts in China’s economic and political landscape (e.g., amplified pressures to compete in a Western dominated economy) have placed heightened value on assertiveness, particularly in urban Chinese societies (Chen et al. 2005). Consistent with Western cultures, shyness in Chinese children is currently linked with peer difficulties and internalizing problems (e.g., Coplan et al. 2017). However, in contrast to Western society, unsociability (i.e., a non-fearful preference for solitude) is also associated with social adjustment issues among Chinese children (Liu et al. 2015). Indeed, despite an increased value of assertiveness, interdependence and group affiliation remain core values in Chinese culture, such that a preference for solitude may be discouraged for deviating from entrenched societal norms (Chen and French 2008). Thus, cultural context exerts considerable influence on our attitudes and beliefs about social withdrawal, which in turn effects how family and peers respond to socially withdrawn children.
Advances in communication technology also have considerable import on our understanding of social withdrawal and its developmental significance. Among older children and adolescents (and increasingly among younger children), conversing and networking with peers via online social media platforms and text messaging are pervasive in developed countries and proliferating in developing countries. A recent poll of adolescents in the USA indicated that roughly 90% of adolescents have access to a mobile phone and almost 25% report using these devices constantly (Lenhart 2015). It thus appears typical for older children and adolescents to be physically isolated yet actively communicating with peers across any number of media platforms. This has prompted a conceptual reconfiguration of the definition of social withdrawal to expand beyond face-to-face communication.
The impact of social media and online communication among socially withdrawn children remains largely unexplored. Some have argued that online communication may exacerbate social withdrawal and impede the development of social skills that are otherwise acquired via in-person interaction (Hamburger and Ben-Artzi 2000; Kraut et al. 1998). According to this perspective, socially withdrawn children may resort to online communication as a sort of crutch in place of in vivo social interaction, which further isolates them.
More recently, however, researchers have acknowledged some potential benefits of online communication for individuals less comfortable engaging in face-to-face interaction (e.g., Madell and Muncer 2007). Socially anxious and withdrawn children tend to gravitate toward online communication relative to their more sociable peers (Valkenburg and Peter 2007). One likely reason for this is that online communication lacks much of the immediacy of in-person communication, which provides users with a greater sense of control (Madell and Muncer 2007). The traditional conversational tempo of face-to-face communication (i.e., immediate back and forth responding) is far less constrained online, and the lack of physical proximity offers an additional veil of control. In short, socially withdrawn children may find solace in some forms of online communication because they can take more time deciding what they want to say.
Another difference between in-person and online communication is anonymity. Of course, many forms of online communication are not anonymous (e.g., social media platforms). Nevertheless, the Internet is teeming with forms of online communication that permit a great deal of anonymity (e.g., blogs, forums, chat rooms, etc.). There currently exists a proliferating culture of online gaming that allows individuals to interact anonymously with strangers from around the world. This anonymity may reduce the inhibitions of socially anxious children and provide them with a greater sense of interpersonal mastery (Kowert et al. 2014). However, excessive online gaming can come at a cost in the form of online gaming addiction (Kuss and Griffiths 2012). Moreover, among young adults, socially avoidant tendencies are associated with problematic media use, including excessive video gaming, online gambling, and consuming pornography (Nelson et al. 2016). Indeed, risk factors associated with obsessive, problematic gaming among children and adolescents (e.g., loneliness, depression, social anxiety) are comorbid with social withdrawal (Carrass et al. 2017). Overall, these findings indicate that measured used of online communication may offer some advantages for socially withdrawn children but should not be used as a replacement for in-person social interaction.
Scholars have suggested that humans are distinctively ultrasocial as compared to other species (e.g., Campbell 1983) and that this proclivity for social interaction has endowed humans with an evolutionary advantage for cooperation and colonization (Tooby and Cosmides 1996). Nevertheless, high sociability is evidently not an essential human trait, as a substantial portion of children and adults often refrain from interacting with others in favor of solitary activities. Current research continues to elucidate the motivations behind children’s social withdrawal and the consequences that go along with different reasons for spending time alone in childhood.
Moving forward, the development of social withdrawal and its concomitants continues to be an active area of empirical inquiry. Researchers are continuing to address the clinical implications of excessive withdrawal and social anxiety. Interventions such as social skills training and peer pairing have shown promise as effective techniques for promoting peer interactions and social competence among severely withdrawn children (see Coplan et al. in press-a, for a recent review).
Perhaps most notably, insights into the potential benefits of solitude for children may reshape our understanding of the relative adaptiveness of socially withdrawn behaviors. Moreover, societal changes and advances in technology are constantly modifying our understanding of what it means to be alone. Opportunities abound for social interaction across an ever-changing plethora of media platforms, and children are increasingly exposed to such modalities earlier in their development. These changes in addition to social and cultural shifts will certainly impact children’s beliefs and outcomes associated with social withdrawal.
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