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Study Finds Close Friendships Better Than Popularity for Mental Health

CC0 / Pixabay / Friends taking a selfie
Friends taking a selfie - Sputnik International
Do you feel like you don’t have many friends? That might not be a problem, according to a University of Virginia study published Tuesday in the Child Development journal.

New research reveals that 15- and 16-year-olds who had some close friends instead of a larger, more "popular" group of friends are less likely to have social anxiety and depression at 25. Although having large groups of friends may foster confidence and leadership skills, close friendships are linked to better psychological health and increased academic success. 

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According to Rachel K. Narr, the study lead and a PhD candidate in clinical psychology at the University of Virginia, "My hunch was that close friendships compared to broader friendship groups and popularity may not function the same way. Being successful in one is not the same as being successful in the other."

"Our research found that the quality of friendships during adolescence may directly predict aspects of long-term mental and emotional health," she added.

Narr's research tracked 169 teenagers over a span of 10 years, from ages 15 to 25. She used an ethnically, racially and socioeconomically diverse sample size. The teenagers were asked detailed questions about their friendships and feelings of self-worth, anxiety and depression at 15, 16 and then again at 25. Their friends were also interviewed during the process.

One of the study's limitations, however, was that it took place before the explosion of 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," Joseph Allen, co-author of the study and a psychology professor at the University of Virginia, said.

This new-found research is in line with what other studies have identified. In his book, "Popular: The Power of Likability In a Status-Obsessed World," Mitch Prinstein, a professor at the University of North Carolina, writes about how people who are likable end up living longer, healthier and more fulfilling lives.

On the other hand, status-seekers, those who try to use their popularity as power, often end up suffering from mental health and addiction issues. Even though Prinstein was not part of Narr's research team, he spoke on the new study findings as providing "further evidence to suggest that some kinds of relationships matter more than others."

In another 2015 study by the University of Manchester, researchers determined that those suffering with depression may benefit from surrounding themselves with positive friends. 

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"We classified people as ill [depressed] or not and looked at how that changed over time," according to one of the study's researchers, Thomas Moore.

"Depression itself doesn't spread, but a healthy mood actually does," he said. "The effect was big, much bigger than you see from antidepressants. They don't seem to drag their friends down."

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