Researchers recently found that adolescent girls who spent more time on the internet 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 findings have been published in the journal Preventive Medicine Reports.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder, often referred to as 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 challenging to control or stop their 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, attend social events, pursue educational or career opportunities, and enjoy a fulfilling social life.
Studies have linked early adolescent anxiety to a host of issues ranging from substance abuse to academic struggles. Notably, the majority of anxiety disorders take root between early adolescence and young adulthood, making this period critical for understanding anxiety’s evolution. Parallel to this concern is the rise in adolescent screen time, especially internet use, which has surged post-pandemic.
Prior research has shown a connection between increased screen time and higher levels of internalizing symptoms and lower well-being among adolescents. However, the direction of this association has remained unclear due to limitations in study designs.
Recognizing the need for a more thorough exploration, the authors of the new study aimed to investigate the bidirectional association between internet use and the development of generalized and social anxiety symptoms, taking into account gender differences.
“The topic of how digital media can influence our cognition, mental health, and behavior has always fascinated me,” explained study author Gabriel Tiraboschi, a postdoctoral fellow at the Early Learning and Social Adjustment research lab at the Université de Sherbrooke. “Since digital media use is a relatively recent behavior in our society and technology is ever-changing, researchers are still figuring out the psychological effects of digital media use. So, there is a lot to be discovered yet, particularly 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 concerning evidence that video game use in early adolescence is associated with ADHD symptoms. More recently, I have been interested in the psychological effects of internet use on adolescents. Past research has shown consistent evidence that internet use is associated with internalizing symptoms in adolescence.
“However, the research has been predominantly correlational, and a question always remained: what comes first, internalizing symptoms or internet use? It could be that more depressed or anxious adolescents use more internet, or that using the internet worsens internalizing symptoms. And that is where this picked my interest, I wanted to answer that question.”
The study utilized 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 regarding socioeconomic status, internet use, and anxiety symptoms.
Participants were asked about their internet use at ages 15 and 17, specifying the time spent online per week for various activities such as gaming, searches, chatting, and social media use. Generalized and social anxiety symptoms 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 social anxiety symptoms at 17. Again, the study did not find a significant relationship between social anxiety symptoms 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 using the internet during late adolescence worsens anxiety symptoms.”
“In the literature, it was often assumed that associations were bidirectional (internet use increasing anxiety symptoms in adolescents, and anxious adolescents seeking the internet more),” Tiraboschi explained. “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 did find evidence that internet use increases anxiety symptoms for girls.”
“We don’t know exactly why the sex difference, but past 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 problems that have the potential to increase adolescents’ anxiety levels. Therefore, it may be that this sex difference is associated with social media use. But we don’t know.”
However, Tiraboschi noted that “one should note that the associations that we found were not huge, meaning that internet use is a factor that contributes to the worsening of anxiety symptoms, but it is not enough to cause a mental disorder in a healthy person by itself.”
The study, like all research, includes some limitations. The internet use measure didn’t account for mobile usage and relied on self-reporting, which can introduce biases. Future research could benefit from a more granular analysis of online activities and their distinct impacts on anxiety.
“We need to understand what types of usage and what are exactly the activities on the internet that make adolescents more anxious,” Tiraboschi said. “There is evidence from other studies that social media use and passive use of social media (such as doom scrolling) are more associated with mental health issues, but we don’t know exactly how this relates to our findings.”
Nevertheless, the findings 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 adolescents and promoting healthier screen time habits.
“Our findings indicate that internet use has a modest but significant effect on the anxiety levels of adolescent girls,” Tiraboschi told PsyPost. “This is a cause for concern, as internet use is becoming more widespread and pervasive among young people. These effects may accumulate over time, both at the individual and societal levels.
“For individuals, internet use may exacerbate existing mental health issues, especially for girls. For society, internet use may contribute to a larger burden of anxiety disorders, affecting the well-being and productivity of many people. Therefore, we recommend that adolescents use the internet in moderation and that more research be done in this area.”
The study, “Adolescent internet use predicts higher levels of generalized and social anxiety symptoms for girls but not boys“, was authored by Gabriel A. Tiraboschi, Gabrielle Garon-Carrier, Jonathan Smith, and Caroline Fitzpatrick.