Impaired Fear Recognition and Social Anxiety Symptoms in Adolescence


This study represents the first examination of adolescent anxiety in relation to peer emotion recognition, rather than adult emotion recognition. Additionally, we examine potential mechanisms for the development of social anxiety in females. Facial emotion recognition (FER) is important for accurate social cognition, which is impaired in individuals with various disorders, including anxiety disorders. Social anxiety often onsets during adolescence, is observed more commonly in females, and is often associated with FER difficulties. Given the importance of peer interaction during adolescence, and some evidence that FER may differ as a function of the stimuli (adolescent or adult faces), we sought to study FER in relation to social anxiety symptoms using stimuli portraying adolescent faces. Male and female adolescents (N = 64) completed an online survey in which they rated 257 child and adolescent emotional faces and completed a self-report measure of social anxiety symptoms. We examined differences in emotion recognition (e.g., fear, anger, sadness) between individuals with high and low levels of social anxiety symptoms. Adolescents with high social anxiety symptoms were more likely to have problems correctly identifying fearful expressions (90.55 % accuracy) compared to adolescents with low social anxiety symptoms (96.00 % accuracy; t = 2.375, p = .021, d = 0.594), and this effect was observed exclusively in female adolescents. The observed sex difference in accurate identification of fearful faces in relation to social anxiety could suggest a potential mechanism for social anxiety development in adolescent females.