A new study finds that high school students who have a small circle of close friends are happier later in life than those who were popular.
Published this week in the journal Child Development, the study followed 169 high school students from age 15 to 25. They found that those who prioritized close friendships over popularity had a greater sense of self-worth and were less likely to have anxiety and depressive symptoms in young adulthood. Those who put a higher priority on being popular had more social anxiety as they got older.
“Our research found that the quality of friendships during adolescence may directly predict aspects of long-term mental and emotional health,” Rachel K. Narr, a doctoral student in clinical psychology who led the study with a team from the University of Virginia, said in a statement.
“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.”
The effects of prioritizing popularity over close friendships don’t become apparent in high school, the researchers found, but show up in early adulthood.
UPDATED Previous research had established that having a close friend in adolescence offered an array of benefits, such as greater happiness and academic motivation, and lower stress responses, Narr told Education Week.
Likewise, researchers already knew that being well-liked or popular offered teenagers both benefits and drawbacks. Popular teenagers are more assertive leaders, for instance, but they also are more likely to have brushes with “minor delinquency,” Narr said.
The University of Virginia team wanted to know what the long-term benefits or drawbacks might be of these two very different types of peer success. And they found what they were after.
The study notes that some students are popular and also have a small circle of close friends, but in general, students fall into one category or the other because of different “personal attributes.”
The researchers were working on the theory that establishing close friendships is “a more fundamental developmental task” for adolescents, and so it will be a better predictor of “long-term positive psychosocial outcomes than simply seeking to become a desirable companion within the peer group at large.”
“Our study affirms that forming strong close friendships is likely one of the most critical pieces of the teenage social experience,” Joseph Allen, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia, and a co-author of the study, said in a statement.
“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,” Allen said.
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A version of this news article first appeared in the High School & Beyond blog.