A new study suggests that teenagers with just a few close friends are less likely to report depression and anxiety in their 20s.

By Amanda MacMillan
August 23, 2017
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Here’s some good news for anyone who didn’t have a massive Taylor Swift–like squad in high school. It turns out, just having a couple of close friends may be better for your mental health in the long run.

In a new study published in Child Development, it was the quality of teen friendships—not the quantity—that predicted lower levels of depression and higher levels of emotional well being in early adulthood. In fact, teens who were very popular were more likely to have social anxiety later in life.

The study looked at a diverse sample of 169 adolescents who were followed for 10 years, from age 15 to 25. Every year, the participants answered questions about who their closest friends were, their friendships overall, and their feelings pertaining to anxiety, social acceptance, self-worth, and depression. The participants’ close friends and peers were also interviewed, as well, so the researchers could get an idea of how widely and well-liked the participants were.

The study authors wanted to know if friendships in high school had any short-term or long-term bearing on emotional and mental health. And while type and number of friends did not seem to predict any immediate changes in these areas, they did seem to matter down the road.

Overall, teens who prioritized close friendships at age 15 had lower social anxiety, an increased sense of self-worth, and fewer symptoms of depression by the time they reached age 25 compared to their peers who didn’t have high-quality BFFs. (High-quality friendships were defined as those with a certain degree of attachment and support, allowing for intimate exchanges.)

Meanwhile, teens who were very popular among their peers—who lots of other teens reported they’d like to spend time with—were more likely to have high levels of social anxiety as 20-somethings.

These differences, which emerged over time, appeared regardless of the participants’ life experiences along the way, and regardless of race, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status.

The authors say that their study supports the idea that strong, intimate friendships during adolescence may help promote long-term health. Teens who have these types of positive experiences with friends may have more positive feelings about themselves, they hypothesize, and may be encouraged to seek out and expect other supportive experiences in the future.

“The skills that teens build and the positive experiences they gain from having even just one or two close friendships seems to be key to a variety of positive mental health outcomes,” says lead author Rachel K. Narr, a PhD candidate in clinical psychology.

It also hammers home the idea that being liked by a large group of people cannot take the place of a few really close bonds—and that focusing on overall popularity without cultivating individual relationships may have long-lasting consequences. That’s important to keep in mind, they add, in today’s world of large but impersonal social-media networks.

And even though the study only tracked participants to age 25, Narr believes there’s a good chance that the benefits of close high-school friends can last even longer, throughout adulthood. “Having the experience of a close and trusting relationship isn’t likely to just go away, and might really set people up to keep having these positive relationships,” she says. 

Besides appreciating our own high-school friendships, Narr says adults today can encourage their own children to form strong bonds during adolescence. “Parents have a tendency to look down on teenagers' interest in their peers,” she says. “We often treat them like they're so much less important than everything else going on during adolescence, particularly school and work, and like they are transient, silly things that teens should be less obsessed with.”

“I'd encourage them to rethink that,” she adds. “Additionally, modeling positive relationships in their own lives is likely a good place to start.”

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