A recent study finds adolescent girls ages 11-13 demonstrating avoidance of angry faces are more likely to develop depressive symptoms in the following two years compared to peers who do not shy away from aggressive faces. Notably, at the 24-month follow-up, the original high avoidance group who had developed depressive symptoms demonstrated the least avoidance of angry face images.
The new study has been published in Research on Child and Adolescent Psychopathology.
Depression and anxiety are common and life-altering conditions that often begin in adolescence. Research has determined that adolescent females develop depressive symptoms at rates three times that of males. In addition, symptoms of social anxiety are often evident by the end of adolescence, and again, females are at a 1.5 times greater risk than males. In order to ensure that developing adolescents can transition into a thriving adult life, understanding and addressing behavioral predecessors of depression and social anxiety may be valuable.
For their study, Mary Woody and her colleagues recruited 129 females aged 11-13 with a participating caregiver. Subjects were obtained through internet ads on Facebook and Instagram, along with postcards and flyers from local businesses. All child subjects were identified as healthy with no psychiatric diagnoses.
To determine a baseline, all subjects completed assessments of temperament, depression (the Mood and Feelings Questionnaire), and anxiety (the Screen for Child Anxiety Related Emotional Disorders – Social Anxiety Subscale). Then the Approach Avoidance Task (AAT) was administered.
The AAT is a computer-based task where adult faces are shown on the screen; the faces are either angry or happy with a direct or averted gaze. Then using a joystick, participants were told to either push or pull the joystick in response to a specific type of face (angry or happy); the directions were reversed for part B. Each set of directions used 64 faces. The push or pull of the joystick also increased or decreased the size of the face. The participant’s reaction time; how quickly they would use the joystick to grow or shrink the face, is used to measure avoidance.
Analysis of the results revealed that high avoidance of angry faces as measured by the ATT was not associated with depressive symptoms at baseline but was significantly related to symptoms 24 months later. These results were similar but not as robust for symptoms of social anxiety, and this was most true for participants who were found to have shy or fearful temperaments.
In response to this finding, Woody and her colleagues state, “In regard to real-world implications, these findings suggest that early adolescent girls who are more likely to avoid people or settings associated with angry faces, which are often interpreted to be rejecting, critical or threatening, may be at increased risk for developing later subthreshold depressive symptoms.”
The research also curiously found that those who were most avoidant during the ATT and later developed depressive symptoms were the least avoidant when retaking the ATT at the 24-month mark. Woody and her colleagues hypothesize that as depressive symptoms increase, the capacity to use avoidance coping mechanisms diminishes. The research team acknowledges that more research is needed to explore this finding.
The study, “Avoidance bias to angry faces predicts the development of depressive symptoms among adolescent girls“, was authored by Mary L. Woody, Cecile D. Ladouceur, Elisa Borrero, Yuqi S. Wang, and Jennifer S. Silk.