Can friendships as a teenager predict later mental health?

Research by Rachel Narr and colleagues at the University of Virginia looked at whether the quality of friendships during adolescence can predict aspects of long-term mental and emotional health.

The study looked at a sample of 169 teenagers over 10 years, from age 15 to 25. They were surveyed annually and asked about who their closest friends were along with questions about those friendships. They were also assessed on anxiety, social acceptance, self-worth and symptoms of depression.

The researchers found that teens who prioritised close friendships at age 15 had lower social anxiety, an increased sense of self-worth and fewer symptoms of depression at age 25 than their peers. However, teens who had lots of friends, rather than a few close friendships, had higher levels of anxiety as young adults.

The study also determined that there was a low relation between teens having high-quality friendships and being more sought after by their peers, suggesting that although some teens manage both popularity and close friendship well, and attract both due to similar characteristics, for the most part, these two types of social success are due to different personal attributes.

Source: Close friendship strength and broader peer group desirability as differential predictors of adult mental health (August 2017), Child Development doi:10.1111/cdev.12905

A little help from your friends

A new article in the British Journal of Psychology describes research into whether, and how, a single close supportive friendship may improve psychological resilience in socio-economically vulnerable young people. The authors conclude that such friendships facilitate resilience, and that at least one close friendship helps adolescents’ strength and resilience against substantial adversity.

409 participants aged between 11 and 19 years were recruited through three comprehensive secondary schools and two colleges in Yorkshire with deprived catchment areas (n=394), and through an online mailing list for peer supporters (n=15). They completed self-report measures of close friendship quality, psychological resilience, social support, and other resources.

Findings revealed a significant positive association between perceived friendship quality and resilience. This was facilitated through inter-related mechanisms of developing a constructive coping style (comprised of support-seeking and active coping), effort, a supportive friendship network, and reduced disengaged and externalising coping. There were gender differences. Perceived friendship quality facilitated effort and friendship network support more strongly for boys than girls, and in contrast it promoted constructive coping more strongly for girls. Boys were more vulnerable to the harmful effects of disengaged and externalising coping than girls.

The authors suggest a number of implications for practice, including:

  • Practitioners might prioritise existing and emerging supportive adolescent friendships within resilience interventions;
  • Interventions might promote peer-based coping skills and self-efficacy; and
  • Supportive peer friendships might be regularly included within assessments of psychosocial resources by clinicians and educators.

Source: Best Friends and Better Coping: Facilitating Psychological Resilience Through Boys’ and Girls’ Closest Friendships (2015), British Journal of Psychology.

The complex nature of bullying

A new study has looked at the pattern of bullying in US high schools.

The researchers used data from the Context of Adolescent Substance Use study, a longitudinal survey that began in 2002 of adolescents at 19 schools. The researchers determined students’ popularity based on their position in the school’s network of friendships. Victimisation was measured using interviews with students.

Only the top 5% of students were not subject to bullying. But the slopes to this peak are steep. The study found that, as students move from the middle of the friendship network towards the top, victimisation increases by 25%. Victims experience psychological distress and social marginalisation, and these adverse effects are magnified by status. For most students, gains in status increase the likelihood of victimisation and the severity of its consequences.

The study shows how widespread bullying activity is within high schools, suggesting that universal programmes to address this activity are likely to be more successful. It also supports calls for more intervention by peer bystanders – if aggression is intended to push one up the social ladder, audience disapproval should be effective in discouraging such behaviour.

You can read more about the research in this press release from the American Sociological Association.

Source: Casualties of Social Combat: School Networks of Peer Victimization and Their Consequences (2014), American Sociological Review, 79(2).

Healthy relationships send teenagers to sleep

What has the largest influence on teenagers’ sleep habits? A study published in the Journal of Health and Social Behaviors explored this topic and found that social factors (eg, relationships with parents and peers) outperform developmental factors (eg, the timing of puberty and resultant drops in melatonin) in determining sleep patterns.

The study draws on the Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development, a longitudinal study of children’s physical, cognitive, and social development. The sample was 974 teenagers who reported on their own sleep habits at ages 12 and 15. They also reported on social ties (eg, parental support, peer relationships), academic demands, and daily schedules, and their mothers reported on family structure and children’s physical development.

Findings showed that as children age from Year 7 to age 15, sleep duration on a school night declines from more than nine to a little less than eight hours per night, and reports of disrupted sleep increase over the interval. Generally, stressful social ties (eg, when family composition changes because of divorce or remarriage) were shown to disrupt sleep. Teenagers had healthier sleep (longer duration and of higher quality) when social ties were a source of support, such as when they felt part of the schools they attended or they were surrounded by academically oriented and prosocial friends.

Source: Social Ties and Adolescent Sleep Disruption (2013), Journal of Health and Social Behaviors, 54(4).

Schools and parents influence well-being

A new report commissioned by the Department of Health has sought to identify factors that predict well-being throughout people’s lives. Data about well-being in early childhood was taken from questions asked to seven-year-olds as part of the Millennium Cohort Study. Findings include that children tend to have higher levels of well-being when they have good social relationships with family and friends, do things that they find enjoyable, experience moderation in activities that are potentially harmful to health, and have parents who do not shout or smack them. The authors suggest that this supports the current emphasis on extending the reach of parenting programmes and anti-bullying initiatives. Schools may also have a role to play in promoting positive health behaviours.

Information on teenagers was taken from the “Understanding Society” annual longitudinal survey. The findings suggest that subjective well-being declines steeply with age at this stage of life, with only 8% of 15-year-olds having high well-being compared to 24% of 11-year-olds. Substance use and excessive computer gaming become more common, and both are associated with lower levels of well-being. As with younger children, social relations are influential. A secure environment at school – free from bullying and classroom disruption – was linked to well-being in teenagers, as was feeling supported at home and sharing family meals. The report does not imply causation. For example, it is not possible to tell whether adolescents with low well-being play computer games, or whether playing computer games results in low well-being.

Source: Predicting Wellbeing (2013), NatCen Social Research.

Is success in school infectious?

A new article has revealed the “social contagion” of academic success within children’s friendship networks. The authors, from a school and university in New York, analysed the correlation between high school pupils’ academic progress over one year and the social environment that surrounds them in their friendship network. Information about the pupils’ social network came from the results of an electronic survey asking them about their friendships, while data on their academic progress came from their school, using a Grade Point Average (GPA) – the average of a student’s grades. Pupils whose friends’ average GPA was greater than their own had a higher tendency toward increasing their academic ranking over time. Conversely, the ranking decreased for those whose friends’ average GPA was less than their own.

Source: Spread of Academic Success in a High School Social Network (2013), PLoS ONE.