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Close friendships in high school might lead to improved mental health in young adults, study says

August 23, 2017

A new longitudinal study conducted at the University of Virginia suggests that the kind of peer relationships that a youth chooses during high school makes a difference to their mental health across young adulthood.

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Adolescence is a period of social challenges and shifting expectations. While it’s expected that peer relationships are important for youths during this stage in their lives, the study looked forward to understand whether those relationships have any implications in the longterm.

Rachel K. Narr, a PhD candidate and the led author of the study said: “our research found that the quality of friendships during adolescence may directly predict aspects of long-term mental and emotional health”.

According to the research, high school children with ‘best friendships’ of a higher quality have a tendency to improve in various mental health aspects over time, while children who were popular amongst their peers in high school might have an increased risk of having social anxiety in later life.

In the study, a community sample of 169 adolescents was evaluated by the researchers for a period of 10 years (started when the participants were 15 years old and completed when they were 25). The participants were socioeconomically, ethnically and racially diverse, including Caucasian (58 %), African Americans (29 %), and children from mixed race or ethnicity (8 %). The average family income of the sample was $40,000 – $59,999.

During the course of the study, an annual assessment of the participants was done by asking questions about their close friends and the relationships among them. They were also asked to attend interviews and assessments through which their feelings of social acceptance, anxiety, self-worth and symptoms of depression were explored; also, the participants’ close friends were interviewed in order to get details on their friendships.

Friendships that possessed a degree of attachment, support and allowed intimate exchanges were categorized as high-quality friendships. The quality of the friendship was identified with the help of reports from the participants’ best friends when they were 15 years old, whereas, popularity was determined by collecting the number of peers in the grade of the teens who marked them as somebody with whom they wish to spend time.

The findings indicated that comparatively, the teens who had prioritized their close friends at the age of 15 had less social anxiety, higher sense of self-worth, and less signs of depression by the time they are 25 years old. On the other hand, those who were popular during their childhood had an increased level of social anxiety as young adults.

Also, teens who had no best friends and were not popular during their high school indicated short-term changes in their mental health.

These variations become evident only later and appeared irrespective of the interim experiences of the youth.

The study concludes that having intimate and strong friendships in adolescence might help in promoting long-term mental health. According to the researches, this might be due to positive experiences with friends that help in strengthening positive feelings on oneself at a stage of life when development of the personal identity happens. They also suggest that the intimate friendships might set adolescents on a path of expectation and thus, in future, supportive experiments are encouraged.

The researchers also found a low association between popularity of the teens and teens having friendship of high-quality. This suggests that even though, a few teens could manage close friends as well as popularity efficiently, and attract both because of related characteristics, for most teens, diverse personal qualities contribute to these two kinds of social success.

Joseph Allen and Hugh P. Kelly, who coauthored the study, comments that their study confirms that the formation of strong close friendships is one of the most vital element of the teenage social experience.

They added: “As technology makes it increasingly easy to build a social network of superficial friends, focusing time and attention on cultivating close connections with a few individuals should be a priority.”

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