Adolescent Girls' Search for Academic Support Leads to Poorer Mental Health

Girls seeking academic support online could be doing more harm than good.
May 1, 2024
The online environment is a place to collaborate and play but comes with a sting in its tail.

Adolescent girls who sought informal support for their academic struggles via digital sources, such as social media, are more likely to experience depression and anxiety, as opposed to those who seek support through friends and parents.

Adolescents use online communication on a daily basis to connect with friends, which provides unprecedented access to seeking informal academic support from these friends. Adolescent girls are more likely than boys to seek support from others and to experience anxiety and depression.

A cohort of 186 adolescent girls from four Sydney-based schools were surveyed about their behaviours when looking for academic support and their mental health symptoms.
Although teachers and parents might think that young people reaching out to their friends online to ask questions about homework or assignments is fairly positive, this behaviour is not as beneficial of as it might initially seem.

Girls who intended to seek support from their parents were less likely to seek support via digital sources, which indicates that seeking support from parents is an adaptive behaviour.

Dr Erin Mackenzie from Western Sydney University, who led the study, said although online support seeking might seem like a convenient option at first, it might not be the best way for teens to manage academic stress.

Dr Mackenzie says, “We were interested in investigating how female adolescents’ mental health was related to their discussion of everyday academic stressors with their friends and parents.”

For the study, girls aged between 12 and 15 years were presented with four typical academic scenarios which could lead to academic stress. This included having difficulties keeping up with schoolwork and not understanding schoolwork. Participants were asked to rate their likelihood of seeking support from either family, friends or online digital sources when in these scenarios, with symptoms of depression and anxiety measured using the youth version of the Depression, Anxiety and Stress Scale (DASS).

Dr Mackenzie says, “An implication of these findings is that it is important for adolescents to keep channels of communication open with their parents, and ideally face to face with their friends.”

To counter some of the negative feelings surrounding academic stress, Dr Mackenzie suggests encouraging adolescents to use their in-person relationships as their primary sources of support, even though online contacts may be more easily accessible. “Online support seeking is likely to be better than not seeking support at all but shouldn’t be relied on as teenagers’ core approach to managing academic stress.”

Dr Anne McMaugh from Macquarie University says, "Students may be particularly vulnerable if they are seeking informal support online and not receiving the support they need."

"Parents can be reassured that most young people still go to their parents for support and when young people do seek support online, it appears they seek support from friends online.

"In contrast, we might be more concerned about the sources of support for vulnerable young people who do not have close relationships with parents or do not have close friends to rely on; these students may be particularly vulnerable if they are seeking informal support online and not receiving the support they need.

"There may be a role for parents and teachers to help students by monitoring their load of daily stressors and teaching them strategies to manage these stressors. When giving students’ academic work or homework, we could match it with help-seeking and support strategies.

"We can reduce academic stress with regular ‘check ins’ with students and frequent feedback intervals. Keep an eye on those who may be more vulnerable to academic stress such as those with a history of anxiety and those with more worry about ‘getting it 100% right’ all the time, these ‘perfectionistic’ characteristics can be associated with stress and anxiety." 

Professor Penny Van Bergen from the University of Wollongong says, "We need to encourage teens to think about who in their lives will provide them the most valuable support for academic stressors."

"We need further research to confirm whether online platforms simply don't allow the quality of support that teens need when they have academic concerns, or whether something might be going on before we get to that point.

"For example, it's possible that teens who are already struggling in different ways are more likely to use online forms of support seeking because it is easier or less intimidating. So, the moral isn't to discourage teens from reaching out for help at all - rather, to encourage them to think about who could provide the most valuable support and in what ways.

"For academic support in particular, teachers and parents can point the way to resources that may be more valuable."

Erin Mackenzie, Anne McMaugh, Penny Van Bergen & Roberto H. Parada (2023) Adolescent girls’ academic support-seeking, depression, and anxiety: the mediating role of digital support-seeking, Australian Journal of Psychology, 75:1, 2170279, DOI: 10.1080/00049530.2023.2170279

Image by John Schnobrich