Researchers recently found that teenage girls who spent more time online at age 15 were more likely to experience increased anxiety symptoms, both generalized and social, at age 17. However, the reverse was not true—anxiety symptoms at age 15 did not predict higher Internet use at age 17 for both boys and girls. The results have been published in the journal Reports on Preventive Medicine.
Generalized anxiety disorder, often called GAD, is a chronic and pervasive form of anxiety. People with GAD experience excessive and uncontrollable worry and anxiety about various aspects of their lives, including everyday events and future uncertainties. People with GAD find it difficult to control or stop worrying, even when they recognize that their anxiety is excessive or irrational.
On the other hand, Social Anxiety Disorder, also known as SAD or social phobia, is characterized by an intense fear of social situations and a persistent worry about being judged, embarrassed or humiliated in front of others. The fear of social situations can interfere with a person’s ability to form relationships, participate in social events, pursue educational or career opportunities, and enjoy a fulfilling social life.
Studies have linked early adolescent anxiety to a host of problems ranging from substance abuse to academic struggles. Notably, the majority of anxiety disorders take root between early adolescence and young adulthood, making this period crucial to understanding the development of anxiety. Parallel to this concern is the increase in screen time for young people, particularly internet use, which has increased since the pandemic.
Previous research has shown an association between increased screen time and higher levels of internalizing symptoms and lower well-being among youth. However, the direction of this association has remained unclear due to study design limitations.
Recognizing the need for more thorough exploration, the authors of the new study aimed to examine the bidirectional relationship between Internet use and the development of generalized and social anxiety symptoms, taking into account gender differences.
“The topic of how digital media can affect our cognition, mental health and behavior has always fascinated me,” explained study author Gabriel Tiraboschi, a postdoctoral fellow at the Early Learning and Social Adaptation Research Lab at the Université de Sherbrooke. “Because digital media use is a relatively new behavior in our society and technology is constantly changing, researchers are still thinking about the psychological effects of digital media use. So there is still much to discover, especially when it comes to development.”
“During my PhD I was interested in the effects of video games on cognition and mental health, and we found evidence that early adolescent video game use is associated with ADHD symptoms. More recently, I have been interested in the psychological effects of Adolescent Internet Use Previous research has shown consistent evidence that Internet use is associated with internalizing symptoms in adolescence.
“But the research has been predominantly correlational, and one question always remained: what comes first, internalizing symptoms or Internet use? It could be that more depressed or anxious youth use the Internet more, or that Internet use exacerbates internalizing symptoms. And it was there this piqued my interest, I wanted to answer that question.”
The study used data collected between 2013 and 2015 from the Quebec Longitudinal Study of Child Development (QLSCD), which included a sample of 2,837 infants born between 1997 and 1998 in Quebec, Canada. The researchers selected 1,324 participants who had data on socioeconomic status, Internet use, and anxiety symptoms.
Participants were asked about their internet use between the ages of 15 and 17, indicating the amount of time spent online per week for various activities such as gaming, searching, chatting and using social media. Generalized and social anxiety symptoms were self-reported at the same ages using established questionnaires.
The study found that Internet use at age 15 predicted an increase in generalized anxiety symptoms at age 17 for girls, but this effect was not observed in boys. Girls who spent more time on the Internet at 15 were more likely to experience higher generalized anxiety symptoms at 17. However, the reverse was not true; generalized anxiety symptoms at 15 did not predict Internet use at 17 for either gender.
Similar to generalized anxiety symptoms, Internet use at age 15 predicted higher levels of social anxiety symptoms at age 17 for girls but not for boys. In this case, girls who reported more Internet use at 15 exhibited greater symptoms of social anxiety at 17. Again, the study found no significant relationship between symptoms of social anxiety at 15 and subsequent Internet use at 17 for both boys and girls.
“We found not only that Internet use was associated with increased levels of anxiety symptoms, but also that Internet use precedes both generalized and social anxiety symptoms,” Tiraboschi told PsyPost. “We found no evidence that adolescents with higher levels of anxiety used the Internet more. This means that it is likely that Internet use during late adolescence worsens anxiety symptoms.”
“In the literature, it was often assumed that associations were bidirectional (Internet use increases anxiety symptoms in adolescents and anxious adolescents search the Internet more),” explained Tiraboschi. “However, we found no evidence that adolescents with higher levels of anxiety symptoms use the Internet more often than their peers with lower levels of anxiety. On the other hand, we found evidence that Internet use increases anxiety symptoms for girls.”
“We don’t know exactly why the gender difference is, but previous research has shown that girls use the internet for more social purposes compared to boys, such as using social media more. Social media use has been associated with upward social comparisons, body image concerns, FoMo (fear of missing out), and many other issues that have the potential to increase youth anxiety levels. Therefore, it may be that this gender difference is associated with social media use. But we don’t know.”
However, Tiraboschi noted that “it should be noted that the associations we found were not huge, meaning that Internet use is a factor that contributes to worsening anxiety symptoms, but it is not enough to cause a mental disorder in a healthy person by itself. “
The study, like all research, contains some limitations. The measure of Internet use did not account for mobile use and relied on self-report, which may introduce bias. Future research could benefit from a more detailed analysis of online activities and their distinct effects on anxiety.
“We need to understand what types of use and exactly what activities on the Internet make youth more anxious,” Tiraboschi said. “There is evidence from other studies that social media use and passive social media use (such as doom scrolling) are more associated with mental health problems, but we don’t know exactly how this relates to our results.”
Nevertheless, the results highlight the link between increased Internet use during adolescence and the development of anxiety symptoms, particularly among girls. Understanding these dynamics can inform interventions aimed at reducing anxiety symptoms in youth and promoting healthier screen time habits.
“Our findings suggest that Internet use has a modest but significant effect on anxiety levels in adolescent girls,” Tiraboschi told PsyPost. “This is a cause for concern, as internet use becomes more widespread and pervasive among young people. These effects can accumulate over time, both at the individual and community level.
“For individuals, Internet use can exacerbate existing mental health problems, especially for girls. For society, Internet use can contribute to a greater burden of anxiety disorders, which affects the well-being and productivity of many people. Therefore, we recommend that young people use the Internet in moderation and that more research is done on this area.”
The study, “Adolescent Internet Use Predicts Higher Levels of Generalized and Social Anxiety Symptoms for Girls But Not Boys,” was written by Gabriel A. Tiraboschi, Gabrielle Garon-Carrier, Jonathan Smith and Caroline Fitzpatrick.
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