Objective: Negative social evaluation is associated with psychopathology. Given frequent evaluation through increasingly prevalent virtual social networks, a better understanding of the effects of such social evaluation is urgently required.
Methods: A new digital social peer evaluation experiment (digi-SPEE) was developed mimicking everyday life online social interactions between peers. Participants received mild negative feedback on their appearance, intelligence and congeniality.
Two-hundred-and-forty-one young participants (58.9% female, aged 18.9 years (15-34)), from an ongoing novel general population twin study, participated. Positive affect (PA), negative affect (NA), implicit self-esteem, and cortisol were assessed before and after exposure to the social evaluation experiment.
Results: The social evaluation experiment decreased PA (B=-5.25, p<.001) and implicit self-esteem (B=-.19; p<.001), whereas it increased NA (B=5.99; p<.001) and cortisol levels (B=.07; p<.001). Females (PA: B=-7.62; p<.001; NA: B=8.28; p<.001) and participants with higher levels of general psychological distress (PA: B=-.04, p=.035; NA: B=.06; p=.028) showed stronger affective responses. Stressor-induced cortisol increase was stronger in adolescents under the age of 18 as compared to those 18 years and older (B=-.06, p=.002).
Conclusion: The digi-SPEE represents a social evaluation stressor eliciting biological, implicit and explicit mental changes relevant to mechanisms of psychopathology.