Adolescence is the stage between childhood and adulthood. The age of 10 to 19 falls in this stage. It is a time of development and rapid physical, cognitive and social changes.
Adolescence is characterised by a shift in focus away from the immediate family towards interactions with peers and other members of society. Social interactions during this period are often novel and less stable, playing a crucial role in adolescents’ developing sense of self, well-being and cognitive abilities.
These interactions now occur in online contexts as adolescents spend a daily average of six hours online for non-school purposes, most of which is spent on social media sites.
The present study, conducted by Karina Grunewald, Jessica Deng, Jasmin Wertz & Susanne Schweizer, examined the impact of online social evaluative threats on young people’s mood and learning. Two hundred fifty-five participants completed a perceptual learning task under online social evaluative threat and a perceptually-matched control condition.
Participants were aged 11–30 years to allow for the exploration of age differences in the impact of online social evaluative threats from adolescence to early adulthood.
The study had two aims:
The first was to investigate the effects of online social evaluative threats on adolescent mood and learning.
The second aim was to explore these varied effects as a function of social risk (social rejection sensitivity) and protective (social support) factors, as well as self-reported mental health symptoms (primarily depressive symptoms).
The evaluative threat was evoked by asking participants to disclose personal information, which they were told would potentially be rated by peers. Under online social evaluative threat, participants then completed a perceptual learning task that has shown to be sensitive to social stress. Performance on the task was compared to performance under no threat.
Participants reported a greater increase in negative mood (self-reported levels of stress, anxiety, and anhedonia) following social evaluative threat compared to the control condition. Heightened social rejection sensitivity (measured using the Online and Offline Social Sensitivity Scale) and lower perceived social support (measured using the Schuster Social Support Scale) were associated with elevated negative mood across the study.
Participants completed a baseline measure of mood, followed by self-report measures of demographics, mental health, social rejection sensitivity, and perceived social support. Next, participants completed the Raven’s Advanced Progressive Matrices and the effective digit span task (see supplementary materials for details on the measures).
Participants then completed both the online social evaluative threat and control conditions of the learning task (counterbalanced presentation order across participants) and the mood was assessed again following the completion of the learning task in each condition.
In the threat condition, participants were instructed to complete a one-minute voice recording introducing themselves and their goals for the future before commencing the learning task. They were informed that their recording would be uploaded to the study’s database and that it may be rated by other participants.
Social evaluative threat adversely impacted overall accuracy on the perceptual matching task, but not learning. These findings provide preliminary evidence that online social evaluative threat affects adolescent mood and cognitive functioning.
Social relationships have been shown to foster resilience against emotional disorders during adolescence. To form and maintain social relationships, adolescents become sensitive to social acceptance and rejection cues.
However, excessive sensitivity to social rejection is a known risk factor for emotional disorders. Social rejection sensitivity refers to the tendency to expect social rejection by others, be hypervigilant to social rejection cues and interpret ambiguous social situations negatively.
In addition to its association with adverse mental health outcomes, social rejection sensitivity may also negatively impact cognitive functioning and learning in adolescence.
The attentional control theory posits that anxiety and uncertainty impair higher-order cognitive functions and learning by reducing attentional control resources available for goal-relevant task processing.
The elevated levels of stress and anxiety experienced by individuals with higher social rejection sensitivity in the context of online social interactions may therefore lead to reduced attentional control and, consequently, poorer cognitive functioning.