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Social anxiety in adolescents

Serious forms of anxiety concerning other people’s opinions can hinder teenagers at school in social interactions or carrying out tasks. Psychologist Anne Miers is looking for ways to reduce this so-called ‘social anxiety’.

Both teenagers and adolescents are susceptible to social anxiety.

‘Social anxiety is an apprehension about other people’s opinion about you: you’re afraid to do things that will be considered “stupid”, afraid of being humiliated.’ Adolescents think a lot about other people’s opinions, which is why social anxiety can sometimes start at this stage in life. For example, you might be afraid of the prospect of having to give a presentation in front of the class. That isn’t necessarily bad. But if an adolescent is constantly fretting about what other people think, causing them to become lost in their own thoughts and to lose their ability to learn or present themselves, that can make the anxiety worse. If this anxiety develops into a disorder, teenagers may start avoiding situations in which they need to demonstrate their skills or to initiate a social interaction. Miers continues: ‘Then the adolescents miss out not only on their classes, but also on the ability to learn important social skills from their peers, such as starting friendships and resolving conflicts.’

A related problem is that teenagers struggling with social anxiety are less likely to seek out help. Miers explains: ‘Teachers take less and less notice of them, because they usually stay quiet and concentrate on their work. Sometimes social anxiety is perceived as “normal” shyness. For this reason, a teenager’s social anxiety disorder can take longer to be identified and the disorder can continue to develop, and this may be at the root of the fact that well-known treatments are much less effective on adolescents than on adults.’

Anne Miers: ‘Research shows that even teenagers who experience little social anxiety may have negative thoughts.'

Positive feedback from peers as a tool

Anne Miers is currently conducting research on ways to reduce social anxiety in teenagers. One of the most important elements of this research is the effect that positive feedback from peers has, something Miers is studying as part of the PoPPSaY! projectEarlier research by Miers indicated that relations with peers are a decisive factor in the development of social anxiety. That is why she wants to examine the question as to whether positive feedback from peers can bring the positive and negative thoughts teenagers may have over themselves into balance. ‘Research shows that even teenagers who experience little social anxiety may have negative thoughts. The difference is that they are capable of keeping those negative thoughts in balance by using positive thoughts (such as, ‘it’s probably not so bad’ or ‘I’m fine just like I am’).’

The experimental pilot phase of the study, conducted on university students, has been completed. The test subjects in this study needed to give an oral presentation, where they were given feedback by peers. A week later, researchers examined whether the subject felt more confident about the next oral presentation thanks to the positive feedback. That was indeed found to be the case with test subjects who experience a great deal of social anxiety. In the coming years, Miers will study this effect in teenagers. ‘For instance, this may lead to the development of an app that teenagers can can use to give positive comments on important moments, a boost, allowing us to intervene before anxiety has a chance to develop.’

Campaign-image of the 'PoPPSaY!' project

Lessons about stress

In addition to this work, as part of an NWA project, Miers is conducting research on the effect of lessons on stress in the first years of secondary school. The Leiden NWA project team consists of Anne Miers, Prof. P. M. Westenberg, Ms S. Vogelaar, and Dr N. Saab (ICLON). ‘These lessons are given to the entire class as part of the normal teaching programme. In this way teenagers may be become more aware of stress and learn about ways to deal with it.’ An important goal is to improve the connection between education and child welfare. Furthermore, this allows pupils to be identified who experience problems in various areas and who are currently often overlooked. ‘We hope that teenagers who identify themselves during these lessons can sign up for follow-up courses in which we can provide them with targeted help.’ It is hoped that this will greatly benefit pupils in their daily life and at school.

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