New research from the University of New South Wales (UNSW) has examined how the threat of being evaluated by others online can affect both the wellbeing and cognition of adolescents.
The study, published 24 January 2023 in Scientific Reports, showed an increase in negative mood in young people following online interactions where they felt like they were being social evaluated, and found that the threat of social evaluation had a similarly deleterious impact on adolescents’ performance in completing cognitive tasks.
Heightened sensitivity to social rejection and lower perceptions of social support were also associated with elevated negative mood across the study, regardless of the whether the adolescents thought they were being evaluated online or not.
Lead author and UNSW psychologist, Dr Susanne Schweizer, explained that adolescents are known to spend an average of six hours online, for non-academic purposes, the majority of which occurs on social media, and previous research on in-person social interactions has identified social factors as strong predictors of adolescent wellbeing, namely social support, and sensitivity.
“Much research has been directed at understanding the impact of online interactions on adolescents’ wellbeing and cognitive functioning, but the evidence is mixed, leaving us parents, policymakers and educators at a loss as to whether we should encourage or prevent social media use in our young people,” Dr Schweizer said.
“There’s been a 52% increase in time spent online by young people during the pandemic, and it is important now, more than ever, to assess how it impacts learning and wellbeing.
“Our research showed that when young people thought that others might be evaluating them, they felt upset and their ability to perform a basic cognitive task was impaired. Assuming these findings reflect the impact of online social evaluation, then these results are concerning.”
As a developmental period, adolescence is defined by a shift away from the immediate family and towards interactions with larger peer networks. Social interactions during this time play a crucial role in developing a sense of self, wellbeing, and learning.
“If you extrapolate these results to being evaluated by peers, while doing much more demanding tasks, such as studying or doing homework, then that may really impact an individual’s mood and ability to concentrate on everyday tasks,” Dr Schweizer said.
The researchers mimicked the threat of being assessed or judged by peers online, a feeling that often follows posting or interacting on social media, by asking 225 participants, aged 10-24, to record an audio clip introducing themselves, prior to completing an online learning task.
Participants were then told that their audio clips would be listened to and evaluated by others online and were asked to rate their anxiety and stress levels at various points throughout the process.
“During the online learning task, there was a ‘views and comments tracker’ at the bottom of the screen. Participants did not know what recordings were being viewed or commented on, nor did they know whether the comments were positive or negative,” Dr Schweizer explained.
“This was to make it analogue to what it is like in real life – when you have to do a task, you can’t track what is happening online, but you know there will be a level of evaluation.”
The results revealed that all the participants documented a greater increase in negative mood following social evaluative threat compared to the control condition, and the threat of social evaluation also led to reduced accuracy in completing the online task.
“Social media has been readily decried in public opinion as causing mental health problems in young people,” Dr Schweizer said.
“But when you look at large-scale data sets longitudinally, the impact of social media use and general screen time on wellbeing and cognition shows mixed results. We wanted to look at what the specific mechanisms were – howe exactly does social media influence young people’s wellbeing in both good ways and bad ways.
“Adolescents with good social support are happier and perform better cognitively, for example in school contexts, but in contrast, young people who are highly sensitive to social feedback and rejection are at risk for poor mental health and cognitive functioning.”
Dr Schweizer pointed out that the crux of this conversation is that, historically and evolutionarily, our social interactions have been face-to-face, and while technology has blurred the lines between social and personal time, its impact on young people’s moods and learning at such a crucial time in their development has not been well defined.
“And with these face-to-face social interactions, the feedback or response you get is immediate. That is not necessarily the case online, where there is always the potential to be evaluated, and feedback is ongoing,” Dr Schweizer said.
“We cannot just keep looking at the impact of time spent online. It does not seem to be capturing those individual differences, which are still unclear. I think it is critical that we start to do more experimental work like this to get more detail, because online interaction is unlikely to be impacting everyone in the same way and it is here to stay.”
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