Wellbeing and Mental Health

Why having lots of friends as a teenager can be bad for your mental health

A group of Catholic school girls look at their phones as they wait on the route that Pope Francis will take later in the day near St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York September 24, 2015. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson - GF10000219774

Researchers have found that large friendship groups could lead to more mental health problems. Image: REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

John McKenna
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Mental Health

Did you always want to be the most popular kid in school? Do you worry about the number of friends you have on Facebook?

If so, stop worrying.

New research has revealed that teenagers with large social networks are more prone to mental health problems in adulthood than those with a small group of close friends.

Researchers at the University of Virginia studied a group of 169 15 year olds for 10 years until they reached age 25.

They found 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.

Conversely, teens who were popular among their peers had higher levels of social anxiety as young adults.

Image: REUTERS/Aly Song

The research also found that having large social circles as a teenager and forming close friendships were largely mutually exclusive, as these behaviors tended to be driven by different types of personalities.

Long term gains

How many friends you have and the quality of those relationships appears to have little impact on individuals while they are still in their teens.

Instead, say the researchers, the quality of our teenage relationships tend to have an impact on mental health later in life.

“Being well-liked by a large group of people cannot take the place of forging deep, supportive friendships,” says Joseph Allen, Hugh P. Kelly Professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia, who coauthored the study.

“These experiences stay with us, over and above what happens later.”

The study, which was based on 10 years of annual interviews with 169 teenagers from a racially and economically diverse group, defines close relationships as high-quality friendships as close friendships with a degree of attachment and support, and which allow for intimate exchanges.

The researchers suggest these kinds of intimate friendships during adolescence may help promote long-term mental health 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 on a trajectory to expect and therefore encourage supportive experiences in the future.

Social media and mental health

With high-quality relationships in adolescence playing such an important role in forming mental wellbeing in adulthood, Allen warned against the dangers of relying on friendships formed online through social media.

“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 said.

Previous studies have shown how social media is causing more and more young people to be dissatisfied with their lives.

They are also more likely to suffer from online bullying and experience anxiety about being without their smartphones.

With more than half the world’s population currently under the age of 30, this is a problem with far-reaching global consequences.

The global economic costs of mental health are already projected to be more than the costs of cancer, diabetes, and respiratory ailments put together.

Previous research by the World Economic Forum and Harvard School of Public Health has shown that the direct and indirect costs associated with mental health are expected to rise from $2.5 trillion in 2010 to $6 trillion in 2030.

With two-thirds of mental disorders attributed to depression and just over a tenth to old-age related conditions such as Alzheimer's, the ageing populations of developed nations cannot be the main source of the rise.

While social media cannot be definitively held to blame, plenty of other research has previously shown how important good relationships with family and friends are for both physical and mental wellbeing.

And these are the kind of relationships that can’t be found on Facebook.

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