In a recent study published in the journal Preventive Medicine Reports, researchers have uncovered a noteworthy connection between internet use during adolescence and the development of anxiety symptoms, particularly among girls.
The study was conducted by Gabriel Tiraboschi, a postdoctoral fellow at the Early Learning and Social Adjustment research lab at the Université de Sherbrooke.
It sheds light on the bidirectional relationship between internet use and anxiety and highlights the need for a better understanding of this phenomenon.
Rising Concerns: Adolescence and Anxiety Symptoms
Adolescence is a critical period for understanding the evolution of anxiety disorders, as the majority of these conditions take root between early adolescence and young adulthood.
In recent years, there has been a surge in adolescent screen time, especially internet use, which has become increasingly prevalent post-pandemic.
Prior research had indicated a connection between increased screen time and lower well-being among adolescents.
However, the direction of this association had remained unclear due to limitations in study designs.
A Deep Dive into Adolescent Internet Use and Anxiety
To explore this complex relationship further, the study utilized data collected between 2013 and 2015 from the Quebec Longitudinal Study of Child Development (QLSCD).
It involved a sample of 2,837 infants born between 1997 and 1998 in Quebec, Canada. The researchers selected 1,324 participants who provided data on 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 were self-reported at the same ages using established questionnaires.
Girls’ Internet Use Predicts Increased Anxiety Symptoms
The study’s findings revealed a striking pattern: 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.
Importantly, the reverse was not true; generalized anxiety symptoms at 15 did not predict internet use at 17 for either gender.
Similarly, 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.
Once 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.
Anxiety Symptoms Precede Internet Use
Contrary to previous assumptions, the study’s findings suggest that adolescents with higher levels of anxiety do not use the internet more often than their peers with lower anxiety levels.
Instead, it appears that internet use during late adolescence worsens anxiety symptoms, particularly among girls.
Gabriel Tiraboschi, the study’s author, pointed out that while the associations discovered were not substantial, they do indicate that internet use is a contributing factor to the exacerbation of anxiety symptoms.
However, it’s crucial to note that internet use alone is unlikely to cause a mental disorder in a healthy individual.
The Role of Gender Differences
The study also highlighted gender differences in internet use patterns. Girls tend to use the internet for more social purposes, such as social media, compared to boys.
Social media use has been associated with issues like upward social comparisons, body image concerns, and the fear of missing out (FoMo), all of which can potentially increase anxiety levels in adolescents.
However, the exact reasons for these gender differences require further investigation.
Implications and Recommendations
These findings have significant implications for both individuals and society as a whole. Internet use has a modest but significant effect on the anxiety levels of adolescent girls.
Given the increasing prevalence of internet use among young people, these effects may accumulate over time, affecting individual well-being and societal productivity.
The study’s author, Gabriel Tiraboschi, recommends that adolescents use the internet in moderation.
Additionally, he suggests that further research is needed to understand which specific online activities contribute to anxiety symptoms, especially in the context of social media and passive usage, such as “doom scrolling.”
In conclusion, this research provides valuable insights into the complex relationship between internet use and anxiety in adolescents.
It underscores the need for a comprehensive understanding of how digital media influences cognitive, mental health, and behavioral outcomes, particularly during the critical period of adolescence.
As technology continues to evolve, further research in this area is crucial for promoting healthier screen time habits and supporting the well-being of today’s youth.