For as long as we can remember, kids have formed different social circles at school. My own schoolfriends used to talk about the Populars, the Geeks, the Sporties and more. As parents, we worry whether – and where – they will fit in. We hope they’ll find a like-minded bunch who share their values and interests. We hope they’ll make good friends.
Children themselves anxiously measure their popularity levels. The pressure intensifies once they’re old enough to join social networks. They compare how many friends they have on Facebook and Instagram. How many people comment on or ‘like’ their posts.
But perhaps it’s time we realised it doesn’t matter. That the quality of our friendships is more important than the quantity. Especially when it comes to our kids’ mental health.
Less is more
A study has revealed that teenagers with large social networks are more likely to suffer from mental health issues once they become adults than those who stick to a small but close group of friends.
The research, carried out at The University of Virginia, followed a racially and economically diverse group of 169 children over ten years. From the ages of ten to 25, annual interviews covered subjects including friendships, anxiety, social acceptance and depression.
The resulting data showed that those who focused on a few close friendships at the age of 15 or 16 had better mental health by the end of the study. As a group, they had lower levels of social anxiety and a better sense of self-worth. They displayed fewer signs of depression than others who were more popular among their peers.
Conversely, the study showed that teenagers rated as ‘popular’ displayed higher levels of social anxiety once they became adults. Those with large social circles during their teenage years were also less likely to have formed close friendships.
Looking to the future
The number of friends someone has in their teens – and the quality of those connections – might have little impact during adolescence. But, say the researchers, it’s in later years that the changes are felt.
“Experiencing strong, intimate friendships during adolescence may help promote long-term mental health,” says Joseph Allen, Hugh P Kelly Professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia and co-author of the study.
“This may be because positive experiences with friends help bolster positive feelings about oneself during a stage of life when personal identity is being developed. Also, close friendships may set adolescents to expect and therefore encourage supportive experiences in the future.”
According to the parameters of the research, a close friendship is one where the degree of attachment, support and trust allows for intimate exchanges. It requires an investment on each side – of time and genuine emotional commitment. This doesn’t tend to happen when someone is trying to simultaneously maintain many different relationships.
Adolescent friendships are formed at a time when teenagers are discovering their own identities. They’re building their first strong relationships outside their own families. These positive friendship experiences are important for reinforcing feelings of self-worth, at this time and later in life.
Many teenagers see the size of their friendship groups and endorsement of social media activity as validation of their popularity. But Allen warns against relying on this as any kind of indicator.
“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,” he warns.
The World Economic Forum and Harvard School of Public Health have published figures showing that direct and indirect costs associated with mental health issues are expected to rise from $2.5 trillion in 2010 to $6 trillion in 2030. That’s greater than the costs of cancer, diabetes and respiratory ailments put together.
Two-thirds of mental health problems are attributed to depression. Just a tenth are due to age-related conditions such as Alzheimer’s. This, therefore, points to the younger demographic being the source of the increase, rather than the older generations.
Social media can’t be blamed entirely, reasons Allen. But studies have already shown it exacerbates dissatisfaction among young people.
“Our study affirms that forming close friendships is likely one of the most critical pieces of the teenage social experience,” he says.
“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.”