How being popular at school affects mental health in adulthood

Posted by
Moya Crockett
backgroundLayer 1
Add this article to your list of favourites

You probably don’t need a scientist to tell you that the person you are today was affected by the friends you made as a teenager. Platonic relationships formed in the flames of adolescence are some of the most intense and all-consuming of our lives, with exhilarating highs and devastating lows. As a result, they can often shape our lives in significant ways – from influencing our music taste or political views, to swaying our educational choices or affecting how secure we feel about later friendships.

Now, a new study suggests that the quality of our secondary school friendships can even have an impact on our adult mental health. Researchers at the University of Virginia studied a group of young people for 10 years, from the age of 15 to 25, and found that those with good teenage friendships tended to have better mental health in their twenties.

They also discovered that people who were deemed popular at school did not necessarily have the strong, healthy friendships related to positive mental and emotional health in adulthood – and might actually be more prone to social anxiety later in life.

“Our research found that the quality of friendships during adolescence may directly predict aspects of long-term mental and emotional health,” says Rachel K Narr, who led the study.

The study, published recently in the journal Child Development, used a sample of 169 young people from diverse racial, ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds. These adolescents were interviewed every year about their friendships, and took part in assessments exploring feelings such as anxiety, social acceptance, self-worth and symptoms of depression.

Participants’ close friends and peers were also asked to comment on their friendships and perceived popularity.

The researchers found that teenagers’ popularity did not necessarily mean that they had high-quality friendships, something that will surprise nobody who’s ever watched Mean Girls. In fact, there wasn’t much correlation between the two dynamics at all – suggesting that being popular requires a different social skillset to the attributes needed to form close platonic relationships.

Teens who prioritised close, ‘high-quality’ friendships over broad popularity at the age of 15 were found to have lower social anxiety, an increased sense of self-worth and fewer symptoms of depression at the age of 25 than their peers.

In contrast, those who were very popular in high school had higher levels of social anxiety as adults.

Watch: What not to say to an anxiety sufferer

High-quality friendships were defined as close friendships that involved attachment and support, and that enabled young people to talk about personal issues with one another. Popularity, on the other hand, was identified by the number of peers in the teenagers’ year group who said they would like to spend time with them.

The study authors concluded that strong, intimate teenage friendships can help foster long-term mental health. This is potentially because our sense of personal identity is still being formed in adolescence, and so positive experiences with friends can help us shore up positive feelings about ourselves.

Good friendships at school may also mean that adolescents learn to expect and encourage positive friendship experiences in future.

“Our study affirms that forming strong close friendships is likely one of the most critical pieces of the teenage social experience,” says Joseph Allen, professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, who co-authored the study.

“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.”

Images: Rex Features