Queensland researchers are developing an online counselling program for children and teenagers suffering social anxiety, which they say is as effective as one-on-one therapy.
While everybody feels nervous or shy sometimes, Dr Donovan said the fear of failure or humiliation that came with social anxiety could make everyday activities a harrowing experience.
“It’s stopping them from doing things they’d like to do, or need to do. For example, they’d have a lot of trouble putting their hand up and asking a question,” she said.
“They don’t like going to birthday parties, and talking in front of the class is their worst nightmare.”
Dr Donovan said most people with social anxiety were not treated professionally, and they ran the risk of developing depression as they got older.
After 10 years of study, Dr Donovan’s research team are close to completing what they say is the first online-only treatment program for children and teenagers.
The Brave-Online program puts participants through several sessions of quizzes and challenges, while also explaining the symptoms of social anxiety and tips on how to overcome any fears.
To keep the online sessions interesting for kids, simple language, bright colours and cartoon characters are used. Parents also complete a version of the program designed to help them support their children.
Dr Donovan said previous controlled trials, which had more than 300 participants, showed the online model worked as well as traditional counselling.
“There are barriers to treatment. Therapy is hard to get and wait lists are high. This gets around a lot of those barriers,” she said.
“In Australia we have such rural and remote places, psychological services are few and far between.”
However, Dr Donovan said she did not believe online therapy would ever completely replace old-fashioned treatment methods.
For 11-year-old Sophie Broadbent, from Adelaide, the Brave-Online program has helped transform the classroom from a stressful environment to a pleasant one.
Sophie’s mother, Veronica Ghee, said her daughter would be talkative at home but would freeze-up when others were around.
Initially, friends told Ms Ghee not to worry and that Sophie was simply going through a phase. However, things didn’t improve by the time she started school, and Sophie couldn’t articulate her problems.
“If there was one person she was around who she was not comfortable with, she would shut down,” Ms Ghee said. “It was awful.”
While counselling sessions were informative, they did not seem to be having an impact. It was at that point Ms Ghee and Sophie joined Dr Donovan’s trial and, 12 months on, there has been a dramatic turnaround.
“It was the first time ever we had words to explain what was going on,” Ms Ghee said.
“She still has her moments, but there have been some breakthroughs. She has talked openly in front of people [without] realising it.
“She’s now very social, and has lots of friends at school.”
A combined Griffith University and University of Queensland team is now seeking about 200 teenage volunteers for further testing.
Anyone interested in volunteering for the upcoming Brave-Online trial can call 07 3735 3312 or visit the website
This article first appeared on Brisbane Times on 1 October, 2013.