Internet use predicts increased anxiety symptoms in adolescent girls, but not in boys

Researchers recently found that adolescent girls who spent more time on the Internet at age 15 were more likely to experience increased symptoms of anxiety, both generalized and social, at 17. However, the reverse was not true—anxiety symptoms at age 15 did not predict greater Internet use at 17 years for both boys and girls. The findings were 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 challenging to control or stop their worry, 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 of being judged, embarrassed, or humiliated in front of others. 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 problems ranging from substance abuse to academic struggles. Notably, most anxiety disorders take root between early adolescence and young adulthood, making this period critical to understanding the evolution of anxiety. Parallel to this concern is the increase in adolescent screen time, especially internet use, which has grown since the pandemic.

Previous research has shown a link between increased screen time and higher levels of internalizing symptoms and lower well-being among adolescents. However, the direction of this association remained unclear due to study design limitations.

Recognizing the need for more detailed research, 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 in the Early Learning and Social Adaptation Research Laboratory at Université de Sherbrooke. “Because digital media use is a relatively recent behavior in our society and technology is constantly changing, researchers are still discovering the psychological effects of digital media use.” So there is still a lot 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 video game use in early adolescence is associated with ADHD symptoms. I have recently 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 the question has always remained: What comes first, internalizing symptoms or Internet use?” It may be that more depressed or anxious adolescents use the Internet more, or that Internet use exacerbates internalizing symptoms. And this is where I was interested, I wanted to answer that question.

The study used data collected between 2013 and 2015 from the Quebec Longitudinal Study of Child Development (KLSCD), which included a sample of 2,837 babies 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 at the ages of 15 and 17, indicating the amount of time they spend 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 age 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 for boys. Girls who spent more time online at age 15 were more likely to experience greater symptoms of generalized anxiety at age 17. However, the reverse is not true; generalized anxiety symptoms at age 15 did not predict Internet use at age 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 age 15 showed greater symptoms of social anxiety at age 17. Again, the study found no significant relationship between social anxiety symptoms at age 15 and subsequent Internet use at age 17 for both boys and girls.

“We found not only that Internet use is associated with increased levels of anxiety symptoms, but also that Internet use precedes both generalized and social anxiety symptoms,” Tiraboschi told PsiPost. “We found no evidence that adolescents with higher levels of anxiety use the Internet more.” This means that Internet use during late adolescence is likely to worsen anxiety symptoms.

“In the literature, associations have often been assumed to be bidirectional (Internet use increases anxiety symptoms in adolescents, and anxious adolescents more Internet-seeking),” Tiraboski 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 found evidence that Internet use increases anxiety symptoms in girls.

“We don’t know exactly why there is a gender difference, but past research has shown that girls use the internet for more social purposes compared to boys, such as more social networking. Social media use is associated with upward social comparison, body image concerns, FoMo (fear of missing out), and many other issues that have the potential to increase adolescent anxiety levels. Therefore, it is possible that this gender difference is related to social media use. But we don’t know.”

However, Tiraboski noted that “it should be noted that the associations we found were not large, which means that Internet use is a contributing factor to the worsening of anxiety symptoms, but not enough to cause a mental disorder in a healthy person.”

The study, like any research, includes some limitations. The measure of Internet use did not account for mobile device use and relied on self-report, which may lead to bias. Future research could benefit from a more detailed analysis of online activities and their distinct impact on anxiety.

“We need to understand what types of use and exactly what activities on the Internet make adolescents more anxious,” Tiraboski said. “There is evidence from other studies that social media use and passive social media use (such as scrolling to doom) are more associated with mental health problems, but we don’t know exactly how this relates to our findings.”

Nevertheless, the findings highlight a 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 adolescent anxiety symptoms and promoting healthier screen time habits.

“Our findings show that Internet use has a modest but significant effect on adolescent girls’ anxiety levels,” Tiraboshi told PsiPost. “This is a cause for concern, because the use of the Internet is becoming more widespread and more prevalent among young people.” These effects can accumulate over time, both at the individual and societal levels.

“For individuals, internet use can exacerbate existing mental health problems, particularly for girls. For society, Internet use may contribute to a greater 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 for Boys,” was authored by Gabriel A. Tiraboschi, Gabrielle Garon-Carrier, Jonathan Smith, and Caroline Fitzpatrick.

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