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August 24, 2017

Study: High school friendships have long-lasting effects on your mental health

The thought of having to deal with high school ever again is enough to induce anxiety among many young adults. If you weren’t one of the popular kids, though, that may be a good sign for the trajectory of your mental health.

According to a new study from the Society for Research in Child Development, teenagers who forge a small-knit collection of quality friendships – i.e., aren’t necessarily the popular kids with dozens of fans – may see better long-term mental and emotional health.

“High school students with higher-quality best friendships tended to improve in several aspects of mental health over time, while teens who were popular among their peers during high school may be more prone to social anxiety later on,” said study lead Rachel K. Narr, a PhD candidate in clinical psychology at the University of Virginia, in a statement.

Researchers looked at 169 “racially, ethnically, and socioeconomically diverse” adolescents over 10 years, starting when they were age 15. A reported 58 percent of participants were caucasian, 29 percent African American, and eight percent “mixed race/ethnicity.” Median family income for the subjects was $40,000 to $59,999.

Once a year through the duration of the study, participants answered questions about their friendships, closest friends, and feelings of anxiety, social acceptance, and self-worth.

In addition to these interviews with participants, their close peers were also interviewed annually and asked about their friendships. Reports by participants’ best friends at age 15 helped researchers identify the quality of individuals’ friendships.

To measure participants’ levels of popularity, researchers counted how many peers in the teens’ grades ranked them as someone with whom they would like to spend time.

By the time they were 25, adults who as teenagers prioritized close friendships had lower social anxiety and a stronger sense of self-worth. They also showed fewer signs of depression.

Teens who had been popular, conversely, suffered higher levels of social anxiety by age 25.

Based on the study, researchers believe that teenagers who experience strong, intimate friendships grow up to be more self-confident and subsequently expect and encourage similarly supportive relationships and experiences as they age.

“Our study affirms that forming strong close friendships is likely one of the most critical pieces of the teenage social experience,” said Joseph Allen, a UVA professor of psychology who co-authored the study, in a statement.

“Being well-liked by a large group of people cannot take the place of forging deep, supportive friendships. And these experiences stay with us, over and above what happens later. 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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