Validation of an online version of the Trier Social Stress Test in a study of adolescents

Megan R. Gunnar, Brie M. Reid, Bonny Donzella, Zachary R. Miller, Samantha Gardow, Nikola C. Tsakonas, Kathleen M. Thomas, Meriah DeJoseph, Jason José Bendezú

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23 Scopus citations


Introduction: The Trier Social Stress Test (TSST) is the most widely used protocol for activating a stress response of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical (HPA) axis and other stress-mediating systems. A number of variants of the TSST exist, including ones for children, groups, and virtual reality. All of these versions, though, require in-person assessment. The COVID-19 pandemic has made in-person assessment impossible or extremely difficult and potentially dangerous. The purpose of this study was to validate a completely remote, online, version of the TSST for children. Method: A sample of 68 (27 female) 15- and 16-year old participants were administered the TSST-Online (TSST-OL) during the late afternoon hours (3–6 p.m. start time). The participants, judges (one male, one female), and experimenter (female) all joined the assessment from their own homes via the online platform, ZOOM™. Two sessions were conducted, one to obtain consent, explain procedures, work with the family to arrange the computer and room set-up for the TSST-OL and one within two weeks to conduct the procedure. The participants were trained to take their own saliva samples and a saliva sampling kit was mailed to the home in between the first and second session. The samples were then mailed to the researchers within a day of collection. The participant was observed during saliva collection to determine correct procedures were followed. Salivary cortisol, salivary α-amylase and self-reports of stress were measured multiple times over the second session. Results: rmANOVAs yielded a significant effect of trials, for cortisol, F(1.37,90.46) = 15.13, p = .001, sAA, F(2.75,146.68) = 6.91, p = .001, and self-rated stress, F(3.43,222.69) = 118.73, p = .001. There were no significant sex by trials interactions for any measure, although females reported more stress than males, F(1,65) = 9.14, p = .004. For cortisol, from baseline to expected peak (30 min after the onset of speech preparation), the Cohen's effect size was dz = 0.57. Using 1.5 nmol/l (or 0.54 μg/dl) as the criterion for a response (Miller, Plessow, Kirschaum, & Stalder, 2013), 63% of the participants produced a significant increase in cortisol. Conclusions: The responses to the TSST-OL are consistent with in-person responses among children and adolescents (see recent meta-analysis (Seddon et al., 2020). The protocol is a viable way of assessing reactivity of the HPA axis and other stress systems without needing to bring the participant into the research laboratory. This method will be useful during periods of widespread infection. It should also work to study populations who all live too far from the research laboratory to be assessed in person.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number105111
StatePublished - Mar 1 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We express our gratitude to the families who make our research possible. Thanks are also due to Bao Moua for her assistance with REDCap™. This research was supported by a grant from the National Institutes of Health , USA, [ R01 HD095904 ] to Drs Gunnar & Thomas, and in part by the National Institutes of Health’s National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences, USA, grant UL1TR002494 . The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2020 Elsevier Ltd


  • Adolescents
  • Cortisol
  • Online
  • Stress
  • Trier social stress test
  • α−Amylase


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