- New research shows being popular may not be as important as having a select few close friends.
- Teens with close bonds grew up to be better at handling mental health issues like anxiety and depression.
- However, a correlation between having friends and being mentally healthy doesn’t necessarily prove one causes the other.
When you were at school, were you one of the cool kids, or did you stick to just a couple of friends?
According to some new research, having a select few pals who you were very close to at school could be better for your mental health in the long run.
A new study, published in the journal Child Development in August, looked at data from 169 adolescents, to see whether the size of their friendship groups had an effect on depressive symptoms, self-worth, and social anxiety symptoms from ages 15 to 25.
It found that close friendships in adolescence were associated with an increase in self worth, and a decrease in anxiety and depressive symptoms in early adulthood.
Lead author Rachel Narr, who is a Ph.D. candidate in clinical psychology at the University of Virginia, works on the psychology of close relationships during adolescence.
“Peer relationships are such a major part of life for adolescents, and there are so many different types of peer relationships,” she told Business Insider.
“I was interested in looking at the different functions those might have for mental health longterm. Both popularity and close friendship have some possible merits at age 15 as far as helping teens feel better about themselves, and past work has suggested that both have some — but we don’t know as much about which has a lasting positive impact into adulthood.”
Quality is better than quantity.
Narr said the research shows that it seems to be quality over quantity of friendships that’s the more psychologically healthy route when you’re at school.
“We weren’t surprised that better adolescent close friendships turned out to be important, but we were surprised by just how important they turned out to be into adulthood,” she said. “We thought we might see close friendship and popularity predict change in mental health during adolescence, and a weaker relation from age 15 to 25, but we saw exactly the reverse. It seems like close friendship at age 15 sort of ‘set in motion’ these long term gains.”
This, she said, could be true for a variety of reasons. For example, your teenage years are when you form the first major relationships with people who aren’t in your family.
“Experiencing very positive ones at that point in life may set the stage in a powerful way,” Narr said. “Also, adolescence is a major time of life where people are developing their self-concepts, so having a close friend who helps you feel good about yourself, trusts you, likes you, and who you like and trust, might really set people up for positive change.”
Also, adolescence is the time where people are most sensitive to feedback from peers, and start choosing who they want to spend time with, rather than who they are introduced to through parents or siblings.
Close friends offer a solid support system.
Charlotte*, who is 24 and from Hertfordshire, told Business Insider she had a select circle of friends at school who are still her friends today. While she got along with most people, she didn’t consider herself in the popular “cliques.”
“I think with them it’s actually benefited me in the long run socially as they have been quite a solid support system, and almost takes the pressure off making ‘new friends,’ as I have my circle, so if there’s a person who joins it that’s great, otherwise no big deal,” she said.
“The friendships are based on trust and honesty. So it’s easier to express opinions, have friendly debates, etc, within the group. I suffer from anxiety myself and they have definitely helped with it and I would say more so. It’s funny as the people who were in the popular group don’t keep in touch with each other as far as I’m aware.”
Katie*, who is 23 and from Southampton, also found having fewer friends beneficial in the long run. She told Business Insider it was hard at the time not getting on with everybody, but most of the people she now associates with were in the same boat and feel the same.
When it comes to dealing with mental health and social situations in later life, Katie said people who had a tougher time in school experience deeper emotions, both negative and positive, earlier.
Speaking on the popular kids, she said: “I think they remain comfortable for too long and then when the stresses arise later on, they have no basis for comparison, [and] it’s the worst it’s ever been to them.”
Still, it’s not easy to make them.
Mary*, who is 32 and from London, feels quite the opposite as Charlotte and Katie. She told Business Insider that she had no friends at school, and from early on stood out from the crowd as being “the smart one.”
“I wasn’t the rebellious kid who was talking back to teachers or wearing the latest fashion… I was frequently mocked or verbally abused, for being a smarty pants and the teachers’ favourite,” she said. “I committed a suicide attempt age 14 which made the bullying worse… subsequently I never felt really close from anyone and I don’t recall counting any ‘true’ friends.”
Not being invited to sleepovers or to go out to bars or clubs at university has really affected her socially, Mary said.
“I am subject to a lot of anxiety and generally avoid social situations when possible,” she said. “I regularly try to force myself to go to work gatherings or my league [roller derby] parties… but I regularly pull out at the last minute: What am I going to talk about? How will these people find me interesting? I don’t have anything to say to them.”
Mary also goes from one failed relationship to another, and although she has gone through cognitive behavioural therapy in the past, she hasn’t managed to overcome her lack of self-esteem.
“I would love to know how popular people manage to be so greatly appreciated and recognised by others — what do they have that I don’t?” she said. “The easy answer would be that they are just being themselves, but unfortunately I haven’t had the chance to practise being myself with people and when I do it usually end up in disaster or just an awkward moment.
“I constantly feel I have nothing to bring to anyone, so what’s the point? I just don’t think I have what it takes, which makes me sad in a way but I haven’t really known it any different.”
Chris*, 29 from Bristol, agreed that not having many friends at school was tough. He said this has lead to him craving close friendship with everyone he can.
“In general I have anxieties about people not liking me or respecting the way I think… [I’m] not sure where it stems from but it’s potentially rooted in [having few friends,]” he said. “I think I deliberately seek closer friendships on purpose, so it’s hard to know whether it’s because of it or if I have just made it that way.
“I would say I was not confident which led to not making friends in the same way popular people did, which in turn led me to viewing friends as people you have a close bond with, rather than just mates or whatever.”
He added that it’s more likely that his mental health had an impact on his social situation at school, rather than the other way around. For example, he was a nervous child, which meant he didn’t make a ton of friends easily. However, he doesn’t think the popular kids had it easy, either.
“The people I went to school with must have felt pressure to be consistent, which is hard to be when you’re a preteen/teenager,” he said. “I think having fewer friends made it easier for me — [There was] less judgment.”
Friends are good for your health — no matter how many you have.
The research cannot be certain of which way around it is, or why some teens form close friendships while many don’t. It suggests a correlation between friendships or popularity and changes later in life, rather than one causing the other. Another limitation of the research is that the study started in 1998 to 1999, meaning the influence of social media hasn’t been accounted for.
However, research does show that friendships are good for our overall health. One study from 2015 discussed how our social connections help us deal with daily stresses just by having someone to share experiences with and talk to.
So, popular or not, it’s a good idea to make sure you still make time for your nearest and dearest. You never know when you’ll need them.
*Names adjusted / surnames removed for anonymity.
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