Eye contact serves a social function, which includes creating intimacy and showing social competence. In social anxiety, however, it is a source of anxiety leading the individual to avert direct gaze
What is less known is that eye contact is typically averted in situations where there is a high cognitive load (i.e., cognition refers to the act of thinking, planning, making judgment, calculating, etc. ) all mental activities that require concentration).
For example, when answering a difficult question, remembering information or planning, we tend to avert our interlocutor’s gaze (e.g., look down, close our eyes, etc. ) to allow us to concentrate more on the cognitive task. Therefore, gaze aversion does not occur only in social anxiety.
Furthermore, during a normal conversation we may look away to concentrate because we experience a negative social emotion, such as self-consciousness or embarrassment, especially if we have to answer personal questions. Alternatively, it could be a way to signal our interlocutor that we are in the process of thinking.
Incidentally, research shows that gaze aversion is reduced during conversations that take place via video devices, which suggests that the distance helps alleviate social uneasiness.
Therefore, expecting someone with social anxiety to practice eye contact as a way of improving their social skills is not only incorrect, but it is also unproductive. Eye contact is a skill in and of itself, separate from social skills, and as such it can only be practiced within certain limitations.
Do not make the assumption that someone who is not looking directly at you must have social anxiety, and conversely do not impose eye contact as an instrument for overcoming social anxiety.
Doherty-Sneddon G, Phelps FG. Gaze aversion: a response to cognitive or social difficulty? Mem Cognit. 2005 Jun;33(4):727-33. doi: 10.3758/bf03195338. PMID: 16248336.