Evaluating a Web-Based Social Anxiety Intervention Among University Students: Randomized Controlled Trial

J Med Internet Res. 2018 Mar 21;20(3):e91. doi: 10.2196/jmir.8630.


Background: Treatment rates for social anxiety, a prevalent and potentially debilitating condition, remain among the lowest of all major mental disorders today. Although computer-delivered interventions are well poised to surmount key barriers to the treatment of social anxiety, most are only marginally effective when delivered as stand-alone treatments. A new, Web-based cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) intervention called Overcome Social Anxiety was recently created to address the limitations of prior computer-delivered interventions. Users of Overcome Social Anxiety are self-directed through various CBT modules incorporating cognitive restructuring and behavioral experiments. The intervention is personalized to each user's symptoms, and automatic email reminders and time limits are used to encourage adherence.

Objective: The purpose of this study was to conduct a randomized controlled trial to investigate the effectiveness of Overcome Social Anxiety in reducing social anxiety symptoms in a nonclinical sample of university students. As a secondary aim, we also investigated whether Overcome Social Anxiety would increase life satisfaction in this sample.

Methods: Following eligibility screening, participants were randomly assigned to a treatment condition or a wait-list control condition. Only those assigned to the treatment condition were given access to Overcome Social Anxiety; they were asked to complete the program within 4 months. The social interaction anxiety scale (SIAS), the fear of negative evaluation scale (FNE), and the quality of life enjoyment and satisfaction questionnaire-short form (Q-LES-Q-SF) were administered to participants from both conditions during baseline and 4-month follow-up lab visits.

Results: Over the course of the study, participants assigned to the treatment condition experienced a significant reduction in social anxiety (SIAS: P<.001, Cohen d=0.72; FNE: P<.001, Cohen d=0.82), whereas those assigned to the control condition did not (SIAS: P=.13, Cohen d=0.26; FNE: P=.40, Cohen d=0.14). Additionally, a direct comparison of the average change in social anxiety in the 2 conditions over the course of the study showed that those assigned to the treatment condition experienced significantly more improvement than those assigned to the control condition (SIAS: P=.03, Cohen d=0.56; FNE: P=.001, Cohen d=0.97). Although participants assigned to the treatment condition experienced a slight increase in life satisfaction, as measured by Q-LES-Q-SF scores, and those assigned to the control condition experienced a slight decrease, these changes were not statistically significant (treatment: P=.35, Cohen d=-0.18; control: P=.30, Cohen d=0.18).

Conclusions: Our findings indicate that Overcome Social Anxiety is an effective intervention for treating symptoms of social anxiety and that it may have further utility in serving as a model for the development of new interventions. Additionally, our findings provide evidence that contemporary Web-based interventions can be sophisticated enough to benefit users even when delivered as stand-alone treatments, suggesting that further opportunities likely exist for the development of other Web-based mental health interventions.

Trial registration: ClinicalTrials.gov NCT02792127; https://clinicaltrials.gov/ct2/show/record/NCT02792127 (Archived by WebCite at http://www.webcitation.org/6xGSRh7MG).

Keywords: clinical trial; cognitive behavior therapy; internet; social anxiety.

Publication types

  • Randomized Controlled Trial

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Anxiety / therapy*
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy / methods*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Internet / instrumentation*
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Quality of Life / psychology*
  • Students
  • Therapy, Computer-Assisted / methods*
  • Universities
  • Young Adult

Associated data

  • ClinicalTrials.gov/NCT02792127