Coping with Academic Stress: The Relationship Between Online Support Seeking, Isolation and Adolescent Girls' Mental Health

Year: 2019

Author: Mackenzie, Erin, McMaugh, Anne, Van, Bergen, Penny

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

With the majority of adolescents using digital technologies to interact with their friends, it is imperative that research explores adolescent use of these technologies to seek social support. Seeking social support from parents and friends has long been viewed as an adaptive coping strategy, while the tendency to isolate oneself in response to stress is associated with poorer mental health. The use of digital platforms to informally seek support has only recently been recognised, however. Few studies have investigated the relationships between informal digital support seeking and adolescent mental health, particularly in Australian adolescents. We also do not know how digital support seeking relates to more traditional forms of coping such as seeking support in-person or using isolation.

This study examined relationships between adolescent girls’ support seeking for academic stressors and mental health, with a specific focus on informal digital support seeking. Participants were 186 girls (Mage = 13.64 years, SD = 1.03) from four independent girls’ schools in Sydney, Australia. The proportion of students in each school with language backgrounds other than English ranged from 31 to 52%. Participants were presented with four vignettes depicting everyday academic stressors. For each scenario, they rated their likelihood of seeking support from parents, friends, or online, or of isolating themselves. A self-report measure of depression and anxiety was then administered.

Structural equation modelling was conducted to examine the cross-sectional relationships among variables. Intentions to seek support face-to-face from parents and friends were unrelated to depression and anxiety, while digital support seeking and isolation were positively related to depression and anxiety. Digital support seeking was also negatively related to seeking support from parents and positively related to seeking support from friends. These findings suggest that girls who do not seek support from parents may be more likely to do so online, and that those who intend to seek support online or isolate themselves may experience poorer mental health. This study provides a timely insight into the use of online support-seeking by adolescent girls, and the relationship between this coping strategy and mental health.