Internet-Based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy for Social Anxiety Disorder: Protocol for a Randomized Controlled Trial in Hong Kong

Jia Yan Pan*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalJournal articlepeer-review


Background: Social anxiety disorder (SAD), also known as social phobia, is one of the most common mental disorders worldwide. In Hong Kong, the prevalence of SAD is high, but its treatment rate is low. SAD has immense impact on academic or work performance, social life, career development, and quality of life. One of the most effective treatments for SAD is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), with internet-based CBT (iCBT) and virtual reality exposure therapy (VRET) showing promise in treating SAD. However, internet interventions are underdeveloped in Chinese communities including Hong Kong. Objective: This study aims to develop an iCBT program that includes VRET, called “Ease Anxiety in Social Event Online” (Ease Online), for Hong Kong adults with SAD in a randomized controlled trial. Methods: The 14-week Ease Online program is a guided self-help iCBT program with a blended mode of service delivery. The program comprises 9 web-based modules and 5 individual counseling sessions (including 2 VRET sessions) conducted remotely or face-to-face with a therapist to provide therapist support, as guided iCBT shows superior effects than unguided iCBT. Other program components include therapist feedback on assignments, internal messages, forums, client portfolios, web-based questionnaires, reminders, and web-based bookings. The program can be accessed either through a mobile app or program website through a PC with an internet connection. The participants are openly recruited and screened using a questionnaire and through an intake interview. Eligible participants are randomized by placing them into a web-based iCBT group, app-based iCBT group, or a waitlist control (WLC) group. Participants in the WLC group are assigned to the app-based program upon completion of the service of the 2 experimental groups. Measurements of social anxiety, depression and anxiety symptoms, psychological distress, automatic thoughts, and quality of life are administered at pretest, posttest, and 3- and 6-month follow-ups. Multivariate ANOVA with repeated measures will be performed to determine the intervention effectiveness on the continuous variables over time. Results: Participant recruitment commenced in January 2021. As of February 2023, a total of 1811 individuals applied for the Ease Online program. In total, 401 intake interviews have been completed, and 329 eligible participants have joined the program, among whom 166 have completed the service. Data collection is still ongoing, which is expected to be completed in March 2024. Conclusions: This study is the first of its kind in combining iCBT and VRET for the treatment of SAD in Hong Kong. At a theoretical level, this study contributes to the development and evaluation of internet-based psychological interventions in Hong Kong. At a practical level, the Ease Online program may serve as an alternative service option for SAD clients in Hong Kong if proven effective.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere48437
Number of pages12
JournalJMIR Research Protocols
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 14 Sept 2023

Scopus Subject Areas

  • Medicine(all)

User-Defined Keywords

  • anxiety
  • CBT
  • Chinese
  • cognitive behavioral therapy
  • iCBT
  • internet
  • internet-based cognitive behavioral therapy
  • mental disorder
  • mental health
  • psychological intervention
  • quality of life
  • social anxiety disorder
  • social phobia
  • treatment
  • virtual reality
  • virtual reality exposure therapy


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