Psychologists analyzed the data of 169 adolescents between the ages of 15 and 25 over a 10-year period. The teens/young adults were assessed annually and asked questions about their closest friends, as well as about anxiety, social acceptance, self-worth, and symptoms of depression. The youth were racially, ethnically, and socioeconomically diverse.
The authors also explained their definitions for the following terms:
“High-quality friendships” meant close friendships with a degree of attachment and support, and those that allow for intimate exchanges.
“Popularity” meant the number of peers in the teens’ grade who ranked them as someone they would like to spend time with and was measured using nominations from all the teens.
As a result, the researchers discovered that 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 than their peers. However, those who were popular among their peers had higher levels of social anxiety as young adults.
“Our study affirms that forming strong close friendships is likely one of the most critical pieces of the teenage social experience,” stated co-author Joseph Allen, the Hugh P. Kelly professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, in a press release. “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.”
The findings of this longitudinal study, which was funded by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and the National Institute of Mental Health, were published in the journal Child Development.
Sue Scheff, parenting advocate and author of Shame Nation: The Global Epidemic of Online Hate, tells Yahoo Beauty that she believes this latest research can serve as “a wake-up call” for both parents and educators.
“It’s a call for more inclusive, caring environments,” she says. “Kids need more time to learn social skills and get along. Latest studies show 36 percent of girls before 17 will have a major bout with depression/anxiety, which is why we need to prioritize and remove the stigma of mental health.”
Scheff further explains the possible connection between being the popular one in school and social anxiety.
“When popularity fades, the so-called friendships with people who were merely there for the party or clique disappear, which can lead to loneliness, as well as depression and social anxiety,” she notes.
And in spite of being attached to their digital devices, some teens today feel lonely, Scheff continues. “The shaming culture is [also] a big part of the social jungle because the bullying starts face-to-face and then goes into the cyberworld,” she says.
The solution, according to Scheff: teaching kids and teens empathy.
“We’re not prioritizing it — it’s in a dormant mode,” she states. “In Dr. Michele Borba’s book UnSelfie, she noted that our teens today are 40 percent less empathic than those of 30 years ago. So the most important takeaway [for] every parent … is that empathy is not soft and fluffy. Our kids are actually hard-wired for it, and this study — along with multitudes of others — confirms that our kids’ mental health needs are in jeopardy. It’s time to rethink our parenting priorities.”
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