Were you the cool kid in high school? Adolescent popularity may take a toll on your mental health later on, according to a new study.
A group of researchers from the University of Virginia recently conducted a study, which was published in Child Development, to determine how teenage relationships can affect adulthood over time.
“Our research found that the quality of friendships during adolescence may directly predict aspects of long-term mental and emotional health,” said the study’s leader, Rachel Narr, a Ph.D. candidate in clinical psychology at the University of Virginia.
“High school students with higher-quality best friendships tended to improve in several aspects of mental health over time, while teens who were popular among their peers during high school may be more prone to social anxiety later in life.”
Researchers examined 169 racially and socioeconomically diverse individuals over a 10-year period starting at age 15. They assessed their mental health by surveying them annually on their friendships, anxiety, social acceptance and symptoms of depression. They also checked in with participants’ close friends and peers to measure quality of popularity and friendship.
They defined popularity as the number of peers in the teen’s grade who ranked them as someone they’d hang out with. High-quality friendships were defined as close friendships with a degree of attachment and intimate exchanges.
Scientists found that those who had close-knit relationships at age 15 had a better overall well-being at age 25. Those individuals reported lower social anxiety, increased self-worth and fewer symptoms of depression.
On the other hand, those who were popular in school reported higher levels of social anxiety at age 25.
“Our study affirms that forming strong close friendships is likely one of the most critical pieces of the teenage social experience,” said Joseph Allen, the lead researcher. “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.”
Although some teens maintained close friendships and popularity simultaneously, the researchers found that these two types of social success were generally marked by different personal attributes and priorities. Notably, the researchers found that neither having a soul-mate type of best friend nor being widely popular predicted short-term changes in mental health during high school. These differences only became apparent later in young adulthood.
While scientists noted that their study was relatively small and did not factor in an individual’s personal characteristics, they believe their findings reveal important information about the significance of fostering relationships.
Teens who put an emphasis on “gaining or maintaining their peer affiliation preference rather than focusing on forming stronger close friendships” did not fare as well in the long-term. The authors said those teens may have been more focused on status and short-term rewards or relationships, which do not have the same positive long-term emotional benefits as being in a reciprocal friendship.
“As technology makes it increasingly easy to build a social network of superficial friends,” Allen said, “focusing time and attention on cultivating close connections … should be a priority.”