An international team of researchers led by the University of Maryland have looked at the potential root of childhood social anxiety and found that others noticing their mistakes could play a role. The study is published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry.
The study gave 107 children aged 12 the flanker task, which tests their ability to focus on information while disregarding distractions. They took the test twice: once when they were told they were being observed by peers and once when they were told they weren’t being observed. The team measured reaction times in both these cases and looked at the children’s brain activity using an electroencephalogram.
Based on the children’s post-error response times and brain activity, the team found a connection between social anxiety and a fear of making errors when under observation.
“One of the mechanisms through which social anxiety arises is an excessive focus on one’s self, and one’s perceived mistakes, in social situations,” lead author George Buzzell told PsyPost. “For individuals with social anxiety, this excessive focus on one’s perceived mistakes distracts/detracts from the ongoing social interaction.”
“First and foremost, social anxiety is a debilitating disorder affecting many individuals and we need to better understand this disorder if we want to help these people. I myself struggled with social anxiety for almost two decades and feel that I have been largely successful in overcoming it; I want to better understand this disorder so that I can help others find the help they need to do the same.”
The findings from the study are interesting, but the researchers admit there are limitations and that follow-up studies are to come.
“First, is that although we were able to assess a child’s temperament early in life, prior to the development of social anxiety symptoms in adolescence, the other neurobehavioral measures were assessed once the adolescents were already showing signs of social anxiety,” Buzzell explained. “A better approach would be to also access the neurobehavioral measures prior to the emergence of social anxiety symptoms in order to truly identify a mechanism that gives rise to it.
The second limitation that Buzzell describes is how the children’s preoccupation was measured. They compared reaction times in the flanker task, which is indicative but still a somewhat “crude” method. They are currently using a more sophisticated analysis and hope to publish their findings soon.