Adolescent Paranoia: Prevalence, Structure, and Causal Mechanisms

Schizophr Bull. 2019 Sep 11;45(5):1134-1142. doi: 10.1093/schbul/sby180.


Background: Adolescence can be a challenging time, characterized by self-consciousness, heightened regard for peer acceptance, and fear of rejection. Interpersonal concerns are amplified by unpredictable social interactions, both online and offline. This developmental and social context is potentially conducive to the emergence of paranoia. However, research on paranoia during adolescence is scarce.

Method: Our aim was to examine the prevalence, structure, and probabilistic causal mechanisms of adolescent paranoia. A representative school cohort of 801 adolescents (11-15 y) completed measures of paranoia and a range of affective, cognitive, and social factors. A Bayesian approach with Directed Acyclic Graphs (DAGs) was used to assess the causal interactions with paranoia.

Results: Paranoid thoughts were very common, followed a continuous distribution, and were hierarchically structured. There was an overall paranoia factor, with sub-factors of social fears, physical threat fears, and conspiracy concerns. With all other variables controlled, DAG analysis identified paranoia had dependent relationships with negative affect, peer difficulties, bullying, and cognitive-affective responses to social media. The causal directions could not be fully determined, but it was more likely that negative affect contributed to paranoia and paranoia impacted peer relationships. Problematic social media use did not causally influence paranoia.

Conclusions: There is a continuum of paranoia in adolescence and occasional suspicions are common at this age. Anxiety and depression are closely connected with paranoia and may causally contribute to its development. Paranoia may negatively impact adolescent peer relationships. The clinical significance of paranoia in adolescents accessing mental health services must now be established.

Keywords: affective symptoms; directed acyclic graphs; persecutory ideation; psychosis; youth mental health.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Affect*
  • Bayes Theorem
  • Bullying*
  • Causality
  • Child
  • Cognition
  • Cohort Studies
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Interpersonal Relations*
  • Male
  • Paranoid Behavior / epidemiology*
  • Paranoid Behavior / psychology
  • Paranoid Disorders / epidemiology*
  • Paranoid Disorders / psychology
  • Peer Group
  • Prevalence
  • Social Media*
  • United Kingdom / epidemiology