Good Peer Relationships and Adolescent Wellness

Peer relationships that are good and wholesome are essential to teen wellness.

Good peer relationshipsSocial isolation hurts humans of all ages, but a new wave of studies published this year shows just how sensitive teens are to their social environment.

To start, a new longitudinal study in Psychological Science suggests that teens who have close friendships and follow their peer group grow up to be healthier than the loners, or those who only pursue self-interest. Even when taking into account other potential contributors to health outcomes, like adult drug use, friendship quality and group-focus in one’s early teens predicted health in one’s mid-20’s better than the combined effect of one’s body mass index or prior history of serious illness. “We had no idea how important peer relationships would be, or that their reach would spread as far as physical health,” says Joseph Allen, who is the principal investigator at the University of Virginia’s Adolescent Research Group.

Two other studies suggest why this might be the case.

One paper published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience looked specifically at how social context relates to risk-taking in the teen brain. In a two-year study, researchers at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and UCLA asked 46 teens to keep daily diaries about experiences with peer conflict and support. Researchers then scanned the brains of participants as they inflated a virtual balloon. How close participants take it to the point of explosion reveals their attitudes toward risk; previous studies have found this task correlates “with real-life risk behaviors such as adolescent smoking, sexual promiscuity, addiction, and drug use, suggesting that this task provides a scanner-compatible proxy for measuring real-world behaviors.”

In analyzing the diaries in relation to the brain scans, researchers found that less support and more conflict with peers was associated with greater risk-taking behavior. Risk-taking teens showed greater activation in the ventral striatum, which has a large amount of dopamine receptors, and the insula, which is involved in sensing other people’s feelings as well as your own. While the implications of the neural findings aren’t yet entirely clear, this study reveals how critical teen friendships are to healthy choices.

It’s a finding echoed in another paper published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B. After a research team from the University of Warwick analyzed interview and questionnaire data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health, they concluded that a healthy mood spreads through teen social networks, but that depression did not—and, in fact, friendship could reduce both the frequency and depth of depression.

During adolescence, kids start to turn from their parents to their peers to find approval, values, and company. These studies reveal the circumstances in which that can be good or bad. “That desire to be like other people and look the part, that’s a built-in human desire,” says Allen. “We kind of pillory adolescents a bit unfairly for being overly focused on peers, not recognizing that as humans we need to get along and fit in, in order to get by.”


Taken from:The Top 10 Insights from the “Science of a Meaningful Life” in 2015

The Top 10 Insights from the “Science of a Meaningful Life” in 2015 by Jason Marsh, Kirra Dickinson, Kira M. Newman, Jill Suttie, Jeremy Adam Smith | December 29, 2015 | Greater Good Berkeley