Adolescent girls’ academic support-seeking, depression, and anxiety: the mediating role of digital support-seeking Adolescent girls’ academic support-seeking, depression, and anxiety: the mediating role of...
Mackenzie, Erin; McMaugh, Anne; Van Bergen, Penny; Parada, Roberto H.
AUSTRALIAN JOURNAL OF PSYCHOLOGY 2023, VOL. 75, NO. 1, e2170279 https://doi.org/10.1080/00049530.2023.2170279 Adolescent girls’ academic support-seeking, depression, and anxiety: the mediating role of digital support-seeking a,b a a,c b Erin Mackenzie , Anne McMaugh , Penny Van Bergen and Roberto H. Parada a b c Macquarie School of Education, Macquarie University; Centre for Educational Research, Western Sydney University; School of Education, University of Wollongong ABSTRACT ARTICLE HISTORY Received 17 March 2022 Objective: This study explored how seeking support from friends and parents and informal Accepted 13 January 2023 digital sources are related to anxiety and depression in adolescent girls. Method: Early and middle adolescent girls (N = 186) were presented with four vignettes of KEYWORDS academic stressors; for each scenario, they rated their likelihood of seeking support from Digital support seeking; parents, friends, or digital sources. Depression and anxiety symptoms were measured using coping; depression; anxiety; the youth version of the Depression, Anxiety, and Stress Scale. Alternate models were tested academic stress using Structural Equation Modelling. Results: Digital support seeking mediated the relationships between seeking support from parents and friends and anxiety and depression. Seeking support from parents was negatively related to digital support seeking, which in turn was positively related to depression and anxiety. In contrast, seeking support from friends was positively related to digital support seeking. Conclusion: These findings suggest that informal digital support seeking may be considered a problematic way of coping with academic stress for adolescent girls, while seeking support from parents can be considered a protective factor due to its negative relationship with digital support-seeking. KEY POINTS What is already known about this topic: (1) Most adolescents use online communication on a daily basis to connect with friends, which provides unprecedented access to seeking informal academic support from these friends. (2) While seeking support is generally viewed as an adaptive coping strategy for adolescents, there is emerging evidence to suggest that online coping is related to poorer mental health. However, it is unknown how digital support seeking for academic stressors is related to depression and anxiety. (3) Adolescent girls are more likely than boys to seek support from others and are also more likely to experience depression and anxiety. What this topic adds: (1) The current study is the first to examine relationships between digital support seeking, seeking support from traditional sources (parents and friends), and depression and anxiety in adolescent girls. (2) Digital support-seeking demonstrated relationships with higher indicators of depression and anxiety, indicating it is a problematic way of coping with academic stress. We propose seeking support from parents as a protective factor due to its negative relationship with digital support-seeking. (3) Given the salience of academic stressors for adolescents, the findings suggest that parents, teachers, and practitioners should be wary of maladaptive outcomes when adolescents seek help online for academic concerns. Academic stressors are a normative aspect of adoles- schoolwork among their top stressors (Arbel et al., cents’ lives (Moksnes et al., 2016) and the ability to 2018). The ways in which adolescents respond to this employ adaptive coping responses is crucial to avoid stress are important, with adaptive responses impli- negative outcomes experienced in response to cated in healthy psychosocial development (Compas school stress (Evans et al., 2018; Plenty et al., 2014). et al., 2001; Skinner et al., 2003). Support-seeking is Adolescents report academic concerns and a common strategy used by adolescents to cope with CONTACT Erin Mackenzie email@example.com © 2023 The Author(s). Published by Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group. This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited. e2170279-2 E. MACKENZIE ET AL. stressors (Skinner et al., 2003) and can reduce the Traditional and digital support seeking adverse effects of academic stress (Sotardi et al., While studies of social support have traditionally 2021). focused on face-to-face support from parents, friends, Although support-seeking is typically considered and peers (Rickwood et al., 2005; Wilson et al., 2005), it adaptive (Arbel et al., 2018), findings related to adoles- is increasingly evident that some adolescents seek cents’ mental health are equivocal. Chu et al. (2010) informal support online as well as in-person. For exam- reported a weak positive association between adoles- ple, Duvenage et al. (2020) found that adolescents cent support-seeking and wellbeing, while Heerde and cope with negative experiences by seeking emotional Hemphill (2018) found no relationship with internalis- support online, in addition to using technology as ing symptoms. These equivocal findings may reflect a distraction and to obtain information. Furthermore, the multifaceted nature of support-seeking. adolescents who experience higher levels of daily Adolescents may seek support from teachers but are stress have been found to be more likely to seek sup- more likely to seek support from parents and friends port through Facebook (Frison & Eggermont, 2015). (Sotardi et al., 2021). In addition, while research has Digital support is typically sought from known con- traditionally focused on face-to-face support-seeking, tacts (Mackenzie et al., 2020), yet the quality and out- some adolescents cope with negative experiences by comes of support offered via digital means may vary seeking support online (Frison & Eggermont, 2015). from that offered face-to-face. For example, digital Below we consider adolescent mental health in light support may be less effective than in-person support of the sources of support adolescents draw on when due to reduced social cues, which may undermine the facing academic stressors and the way in which they clarity, genuineness or emotional relief of the support do so. provided (Rains et al., 2016; Vermeulen et al., 2018; Walther et al., 2015). While the mental health implications of adolescents’ Sources of support digital support-seeking for academic stressors are When considering the source of support, there is unknown, adolescents’ use of online coping for every- some evidence to suggest that seeking support day stressors has been associated with worry, jealousy, from parents in early to mid-adolescence has and loneliness (Duvenage et al., 2020). Higher levels of a greater impact on wellbeing than seeking support emotional support-seeking on Facebook have also from peers. For example, Heerde and Hemphill’s been related to depressed mood (Frison & (2018) meta-analysis found that seeking help from Eggermont, 2015). The constancy of contact afforded parents or a combination of parents and peers was by digital communication may also mean that adoles- associated with improved psychosocial outcomes cents have a heightened expectation that help is compared to other sources of support such as school always available (Nesi et al., 2018). In the context of personnel and other significant adults. Similarly, online academic help seeking, adolescent girls have Szwedo et al. (2017) reported that seeking support identified that this availability allows them to ask for from parents at age 13 years predicted functional help with homework and for answers to homework independence at 25 years. Research also suggests whenever they need it (Mackenzie et al., 2020). While that the perception of social support from parents this was perceived as beneficial by adolescents, it is is also a stronger predictor of wellbeing than per- quite possible that a quick deferral to friends for help ceived peer support across adolescence (Seiffge- with homework before trying to solve a problem leads Krenke & Persike, 2017; Wentzel et al., 2016). to poorer understanding and achievement (Ryan & Despite these findings, seeking support from friends Shim, 2012), each of which could contribute to poorer is also critical. Reflecting the increasing importance mental health. of peers in adolescence (Albert et al., 2013), support from friends appears to increasingly reduce physio- Current study logical stress during adolescence, while the stress buffering effects of parental support decreases This study explored adolescent girls’ digital and tradi- (Gunnar & Hostinar, 2015). Taken together, these tional support-seeking intentions in response to every- findings suggest that seeking support from both day academic stressors. Adolescent girls are more likely parents and friends is likely to be an adaptive way than boys to seek support from others (Sotardi et al., of coping in adolescence. 2021) and to experience anxiety and depression AUSTRALIAN JOURNAL OF PSYCHOLOGY e2170279-3 (Ohannessian et al., 2017; Salk et al., 2017). Given that support from their parents, friends, or digitally on support-seeking intentions predict real-world beha- a 5-point scale (1 = not at all and 5 = definitely). viours (Nagai, 2015), we used vignettes to capture A mean score of responses generated a score for each relationships between support seeking intentions subscale (α =.82; α =.80; α =.84). parents friends digital (digital, from parents, or from friends) and mental health symptoms (depression and anxiety). As adoles- Depression and anxiety cents predominantly use online communication with The youth version of the Depression, Anxiety, and friends (Mackenzie et al., 2020), we expected those Stress Scale (DASS-Y) (Szabo & Lovibond, 2013) pro- who reported greater intentions to seek support from vided an indicator of adolescent mental health on two friends would also do so digitally. However, we pre- 8-item subscales assessing symptoms of depression dicted different relationships with mental health. and anxiety. Participants rated how much they had Based on the extant literature, we expected that inten- experienced each symptom in the preceding week on tions to seek parents’ and friends’ support for aca- a 4-point Likert scale (0 = not true of you and 3 = very demic stressors would be negatively related to true of you), with higher scores indicating increased depression and anxiety (Sotardi et al., 2021) and that severity of symptoms (α =.90; α =.87). depression anxiety digital support-seeking would be positively related (Duvenage et al., 2020; Frison & Eggermont, 2015). We used structural equation modelling to explore rela- Procedure tions between and among these sources and the men- This study received institutional ethics approval from tal health indicators including if one or other support the Macquarie University Human Research Ethics source might play a mediating role in the effectiveness Committee (reference number: 5201400949). of the other sources. Principals of schools, students and their parents pro- vided written consent for student participation in the study. Paper-based surveys were completed at the Method schools, taking an average of 20-minutes to complete. Participants The participants were 186 girls from four indepen- Analysis strategy dent girls’ schools in Sydney, Australia, including 78 girls in Grade 7 (M = 12.55 years, SD = 0.46) and Analyses were conducted using SPSS 25 and MPlus 8.0 age 108 girls in Grade 9 (M = 14.43 years, SD = 0.40). (Muthén & Muthén, 1998–2022). Measurement models age These participants were drawn from a larger study were tested for each latent variable, followed by two of developmental influences on support seeking. The mediation models. Criteria used to determine a good younger and older groups represent the typical per- model fit were comparative fit index (CFI) and Tucker- iod when academic stress and digital communication Lewis index (TLI) greater than .95, root mean square increases (Anniko et al., 2019; Booker et al., 2018). error of approximation (RMSEA) less than .05, and Students with language backgrounds other than standardised root mean square residual (SRMR) less English ranged from 31% to 52% of the school than .08 (Hu & Bentler, 1999). population, which is typical of the Sydney area (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2011). All schools Measurement models comprised a student body at relative socioeconomic advantage compared with other Australian schools Seeking support to cope with academic stressors (Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting One-factor congeneric models were fitted to specify Authority, 2015). the relationships between individual items and each latent factor in the AASSS. The four-item congeneric model was a good fit for the “digital support-seeking” Measures factor; however, the model did not provide an accep- Seeking support to cope with academic stressors table fit for the “seeking support from parents” or Intentions to seek support for academic stressors were “seeking support from friends” factors. By deleting assessed with the Adolescent Academic Support-Seeking one item that was highly similar and retaining Scale (AASSS), which was adapted from Skinner et al. a second item with the higher modification index, the (2013). Participants responded to four vignettes depict- three-item models demonstrated good fit and internal ing academic stressors and rated the intention to seek reliability for all three factors (Table 1). e2170279-4 E. MACKENZIE ET AL. Table 1. Model fit statistics for measurement models. Model RMSEA SRMR TLI CFI χ df p α Seeking support from parents .00 .03 1.00 1.00 .82 1 .37 .78 Seeking support from friends .00 .03 1.00 1.00 .82 1 .37 .77 Digital support-seeking .00 .01 1.02 1.00 .05 1 .83 .80 Depression .05 .02 0.98 0.99 7.67 5 .18 .91 Anxiety .00 .02 1.01 1.00 3.60 5 .61 .84 Full measurement model .03 .05 .98 .98 170.01 142 .05 - a 2 Note. =Satorra-Bentler Scaled chi-square; χ = chi-square; df = degrees of freedom; CFI = Comparative Fit and Index; TLI = Tucker-Lewis Index; RMSEA = Root Mean Square Error of Approximation; SRMR = Standardized Root Mean Squared Residual. Depression and anxiety would seek support from parents than to seek support A one-factor congeneric model, using a Satorra-Bentler from friends or use digital support seeking. They were χ post-hoc adjustment to account for the non- also significantly more likely to seek support from normality of the data, did not result in an acceptable friends rather than use digital support seeking, F(1.86, fit for the 8-item depression subscale. The modification 344.14) = 334.16, p < 0.001. On average, girls in this indices and item wording suggested the presence of sample reported higher levels of anxiety than depres- two related constructs: one focused on depression and sion, t(185) = 3.47, p <.001 one focused on low enjoyment in-the-moment. Three items measured the second construct and were Structural models removed from the model; this created a measure of a single depression construct. The remaining five-item Two structural equation models were tested to exam- model demonstrated acceptable fit and excellent inter- ine how digital support-seeking, seeking support from nal reliability (Table 1). parents, and seeking support from friends were related The one-factor congeneric model for the anxiety sub- to depression and anxiety. scale, using a Satorra-Bentler χ post-hoc adjustment, also showed inadequate fit. The R values of the three items were low (.32 to .39); with these items removed from the Model 1 model, the resulting five-item model provided a good fit Using digital support-seeking as mediator in Model 1 to the data and internal reliability (Table 1). (Figure 1) provided a good fit to the data. The smaller AIC value of Model 1 indicated that this was the opti- Full measurement model mal model (Table 3). Direct paths between seeking A full measurement model was conducted to confirm support from parents or friends and depression or the factor structure of the latent factors to be included anxiety were negative but not statistically significant. in the structural model. This model provided a good fit Seeking support from parents negatively predicted to the data (Table 1). Latent factor correlations are digital support-seeking, while seeking support from shown in Table 2. friends positively predicted digital support-seeking. This suggests that girls who intended to seek support from parents were less likely to use digital support- Results seeking, but girls who intended to seek support from Descriptive statistics for each latent factor are shown in friends were more likely to use digital support-seeking. Table 2. A repeated measures ANOVA with Digital support-seeking was in turn a positive predictor Greenhouse–Geisser correction determined that of of both depression and anxiety, indicating that girls the three ways of coping with academic stressors, who sought digital support were more likely to report girls were significantly more likely to report they poorer mental health. Table 2. Descriptive statistics and latent factor correlations. Latent factor correlations M SD Variable 1 2 3 4 5 1. Seeking support from parents 4.08 .86 - 2. Seeking support from friends 3.35 .95 .186* - 3. Digital support-seeking 1.91 .90 −.089 .385** - 4. Depression 2.55 3.74 −.168* −.070 .180* - 5. Anxiety 3.35 3.82 −.103 .009 .205** .646** - Note.*=Significant at the 0.05 level; **=Significant at the 0.01 level. AUSTRALIAN JOURNAL OF PSYCHOLOGY e2170279-5 Figure 1. Digital support-seeking as mediator model with standardised path coefficients. Significant paths are shown in blue. Indicators and uniquenesses are omitted for simplicity. Table 3. Model fit statistics for the structural models. Model 2 Model 1 Model 2 A competing model (Figure 2), in which seeking sup- RMSEA .03 .04 port from parents and friends mediated the relation- SRMR .05 .06 ship between digital support-seeking and mental TLI 0.98 0.97 CFI 0.98 0.97 health also provided a good fit for the data (Table 3). SB-χ 170.01 181.66 However, inspection of the significant paths revealed df 142 143 p .05 .02 that seeking support from parents was not significantly AIC 8425.72 8436.91 related to either digital support-seeking or either men- Note. RMSEA = Root Mean Square Error of Approximation; SRMR = Standardized Root Mean Squared Residual; TLI = Tucker-Lewis tal health variable. Seeking support from friends did Index; CFI = Comparative fit index; SB-χ = Satorra-Bentler Scaled mediate the relationship between digital support- chi-square; df = degrees of freedom; AIC = Akaike Information Criteria index. seeking and mental health, such that direct positive Figure 2. Seeking support from parents and friends as mediator model with standardised path coefficients. Significant paths are shown in blue. Indicators and uniquenesses are omitted for simplicity. e2170279-6 E. MACKENZIE ET AL. relationships between digital support-seeking and forms of digital support-seeking for academic stressors, poorer mental health were not present if girls also while providing an adaptive way of coping with stress. Previous research confirms the positive implications of sought support from their friends. parent support for adolescent wellbeing (Heerde & Hemphill, 2018). A second novel contribution was the finding that Discussion digital support-seeking mediated the relationship This study explored relationships between adolescent between support-seeking from friends and depression girls’ digital and traditional support-seeking intentions and anxiety. While the direct effects between intentions for academic stressors and their experiences of depres- to seek support from friends and depression and anxi- sion and anxiety. We found positive but non-significant ety were non-significant, the indirect effects through relations between seeking support from parents and digital support-seeking were significant and positive. friends and better mental health but positive and signifi - This suggests that girls who turn to friends for academic cant relations between digital support-seeking and support are also more likely to seek digital support; in poorer mental health. Further, digital support-seeking turn, this is related to higher levels of depression and mediated the relationship between support-seeking anxiety. The practical implication of this finding is that from parents and friends and both depression and anxi- parents and teachers should be wary of encouraging ety, such that benefits of support-seeking from parents adolescent girls to discuss academic concerns online; and friends were reduced if adolescent girls also sought this may be associated with non-adaptive support seek- digital support. ing behaviours and poor mental health outcomes. A major finding of this study was that intentions to Over and above the limitations associated with seek online support to cope with academic stressors a cross-sectional study design, there are other limita- were related to higher levels of depression and anxiety. tions specific to this study. We chose to focus specifi - This adds to a growing body of evidence that suggests cally on female participants, meaning that our findings informal digital support-seeking is related to poorer should not be generalised to adolescent boys. Given mental health in adolescents (Duvenage et al., 2020; the emerging evidence for differences in relationships Frison & Eggermont, 2015). Thus, although support- between online communication and wellbeing for seeking is viewed as an adaptive way of coping with males and females (e.g., Brandtzæg, 2012; Frison & everyday stressors (Arbel et al., 2018), doing so online Eggermont, 2016), we recommend that future research may be a problematic way of coping with academic considers specific studies with male and non-binary stress. As adolescents may seek emotional support participants to examine the implications of digital sup- due to experiencing difficulties with schoolwork, and port seeking for males and non-binary adolescents. digital emotional support-seeking is associated with Another limitation to note is that our coping vignettes increased worry and uncertainty (Rains et al., 2016), measured intentions to cope rather than actual coping this could contribute to greater depression and anxiety. responses. While vignettes are an established way of For academic stressors in particular, the constant con- measuring coping that allows for the standardisation tact available via digital communication may allow ado- of stressors across participants (Pitzer & Skinner, 2017; lescents to turn to peers and for answers to questions Skinner et al., 2013), it is possible that some students’ rather than solving problems independently (Mackenzie actual coping responses may differ from their intended et al., 2020). These behaviours are unlikely to improve responses (Zimmer-Gembeck, 2015). Given our find - the help-seeker’s understanding of schoolwork, contri- ings that a range of coping intentions predict students’ buting additional stress to explain poorer mental health. mental health outcomes, we suggest that both coping A novel contribution of this study was the explora- intentions and coping behaviours are important. tion of digital support-seeking intentions alongside Finally, we did not assess who adolescents intended intentions to seek support from parents and friends. to seek support from online. In other research, these Intentions to seek support from parents were negatively same adolescents reported that digital interactions related to digital support-seeking, implying that girls were with in-person friends (Mackenzie et al., 2020); with parental support do not go online to access sup- however, it is possible that adolescents seek online port. This aligns with previous research showing support from other acquaintances too. Given our find - a negative relationship between parent relationship ing that digital support seeking is related to increased quality and adolescent digital communication depression and anxiety, we recommend that future (Foerster & Röösli, 2017). As such, seeking support research test this finding in different contexts by exam- from parents may be protective against non-adaptive ining the different sources of support that adolescent AUSTRALIAN JOURNAL OF PSYCHOLOGY e2170279-7 girls seek support from online and the quality of this Australian Bureau of Statistics. (2011). 2011 Census QuickStats. https://quickstats.censusdata.abs.gov.au/census_services/ support. getproduct/census/2011/quickstat/0 Notwithstanding these limitations, this study con- Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority. tributes to our understanding of how adolescent (2015). About ICSEA. http://www.acara.edu.au/_resources/ girls' intended support-seeking behaviours are con- About_icsea_2014.pdf currently related to depression and anxiety symp- Booker, C. L., Kelly, Y. J., & Sacker, A. (2018). Gender differ - ences in the associations between age trends of social toms. The findings suggest that digital support- media interaction and well-being among 10-15 year olds seeking is a problematic way of coping with aca- in the UK. BMC Public Health, 18(1), 321. https://doi.org/10. demic stress, demonstrating relationships with 1186/s12889-018-5220-4 higher indicators of depression and anxiety. Further, Brandtzæg, P. B. (2012). Social networking sites: Their users seeking support from parents can tentatively be con- and social implications—a longitudinal study. Journal of sidered a protective factor due to its negative rela- Computer-mediated Communication, 17(4), 467–488. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1083-6101.2012.01580.x tionship with digital support-seeking. 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