"Long before it's in the papers"
August 31, 2015


Better friendships in teen years may lead to better health in adulthood

Aug. 31, 2015
Courtesy of the Association for Psychological Science
and World Science staff

Teens are of­ten warned to be­ware of un­due peer pres­sure, but new re­search sug­gests fol­low­ing the pack in the teen years may have some un­ex­pected ben­e­fits.

A study pub­lished in the jour­nal Psy­cho­log­i­cal Sci­ence has found that phys­i­cal health in adult­hood could be pre­dicted based on the qual­ity of close friend­ships in ad­o­les­cence. And ef­forts to con­form to peer norms were ac­tu­ally linked to high­er qual­ity health in adult­hood.

“These re­sults in­di­cate that re­main­ing close to—as op­posed to sep­a­rat­ing one­self—from the peer pack in ad­o­les­cence has long-term im­plica­t­ions for adult phys­i­cal health,” said Jo­seph P. Al­len, a co-author. “In this stu­dy, it was a ro­bust pre­dic­tor of in­creased long-term phys­i­cal health qual­ity,” added Al­len, a psy­chol­o­gist at the Un­ivers­ity of Vir­gin­ia. 

The in­tense ad­o­les­cent fo­cus on form­ing and main­tain­ing peer rela­t­ion­ships may well re­sult from an in­stinc­tive rec­og­ni­tion that these rela­t­ion­ships are linked to well-be­ing, the re­search­ers said.

“Peer rela­t­ion­ships pro­vide some of the most emo­tion­ally in­tense ex­pe­ri­ences in ad­o­les­cents’ lives, and con­form­ity to peer norms of­ten oc­curs even when it br­ings sig­nif­i­cant costs to the in­di­vid­u­al,” they wrote. “Cross-cultural re­search has found that an ap­proach to so­cial in­ter­ac­tions that em­pha­sizes plac­ing the de­sires of one’s peers ahead of one’s own goal­s—much as ad­o­les­cents do when they con­form to peer norm­s—is linked to re­duced life stress.”

Al­len and col­leagues re­cruited a di­verse group of 171 se­venth- and eighth-graders and fol­lowed them from ages 13 through 27.

Each par­ti­ci­pant nom­i­nat­ed their clos­est same-gendered friend at the time to be in­clud­ed in the stu­dy. From ages 13 through 17, the par­ti­ci­pants’ best friend filled out a ques­tion­naire as­sess­ing the over­all qual­ity of the friend­ship, in­clud­ing the de­gree of trust, com­mu­nica­t­ion, and al­iena­t­ion in the rela­t­ion­ship. Friends al­so pro­vided in­forma­t­ion about how much par­ti­ci­pants’ fo­cused on fit­ting in with their peers.

Par­ti­ci­pants’ health qual­ity was then as­sessed an­nu­ally at ages 25, 26, and 27 years old with ques­tions about their over­all health, anx­i­e­ty and de­pres­sion symp­toms, and body mass in­dex.

To ac­count for pos­si­ble health prob­lems, par­ti­ci­pants al­so re­ported on dis­tinct med­i­cal di­ag­noses as well as any hos­pi­tal­iz­a­tions.

Re­sults in­di­cated that both high-qual­ity close friend­ships and a drive to fit in with peers in ad­o­les­cence were as­so­ci­at­ed with bet­ter health at age 27, even af­ter tak­ing oth­er po­ten­tially in­flu­en­tial vari­ables such as house­hold in­come, body mass in­dex, and drug use in­to ac­count.

The find­ings in­di­cated that ad­o­les­cent rela­t­ion­ship qual­i­ties may in­flu­ence adult health through lower lev­els of lat­er anx­i­e­ty and de­pres­sive symp­toms.

The effect may be rooted in evo­lu­tion, the re­search­ers ar­gued.

“Although autonomy-establishing be­hav­ior is clearly of val­ue in mod­ern West­ern so­ci­e­ty, in which daily sur­viv­al threats are min­i­mal, it may have be­come linked to stress re­ac­tions over the course of hu­man ev­o­lu­tion, when separa­t­ion from the larg­er hu­man pack was likely to br­ing grave dan­ger,” Al­len and col­leagues wrote.

“From a risk and pre­vention per­spec­tive, dif­fi­cul­ty form­ing close rela­t­ion­ships early in ad­o­les­cence may now be con­sid­ered a mark­er of risk for long-term health dif­fi­cul­ties,” Al­len said.

In the fu­ture, long-term health pro­mo­tion ef­forts may want to con­sid­er the qual­ity of so­cial rela­t­ion­ships in ad­o­les­cence in ad­di­tion to more com­monly in­ves­t­i­gated health risks, such as obes­ity and smok­ing, he added.

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Teens are often warned to beware the undue influence of peer pressure, but new research suggests following the pack in the teen years may have some unexpected benefits. A study published in the journal Psychological Science has found that physical health in adulthood could be predicted based on the quality of close friendships in adolescence. And efforts to conform to peer norms were actually linked to higher quality health in adulthood. “These results indicate that remaining close to—as opposed to separating oneself—from the peer pack in adolescence has long-term implications for adult physical health,” said Joseph P. Allen, a co-author. “In this study, it was a robust predictor of increased long-term physical health quality,” added Allen, a psychologist at the University of Virginia. The intense adolescent focus on forming and maintaining peer relationships may well result from an instinctive recognition that these relationships are linked to well-being, the researchers said. “Peer relationships provide some of the most emotionally intense experiences in adolescents’ lives, and conformity to peer norms often occurs even when it brings significant costs to the individual,” they wrote. “Cross-cultural research has found that an approach to social interactions that emphasizes placing the desires of one’s peers ahead of one’s own goals—much as adolescents do when they conform to peer norms—is linked to reduced life stress.” Allen and colleagues recruited a diverse group of 171 seventh- and eighth-graders and followed them from ages 13 through 27. Each participant nominated their closest same-gendered friend at the time to be included in the study. From ages 13 through 17, the participants’ best friend filled out a questionnaire assessing the overall quality of the friendship, including the degree of trust, communication, and alienation in the relationship. Friends also provided information about how much participants’ focused on fitting in with their peers. Participants’ health quality was then assessed annually at ages 25, 26, and 27 years old with questions about their overall health, anxiety and depression symptoms, and body mass index. To account for possible health problems, participants also reported on distinct medical diagnoses as well as any hospitalizations. Results indicated that both high-quality close friendships and a drive to fit in with peers in adolescence were associated with better health at age 27, even after taking other potentially influential variables such as household income, body mass index, and drug use into account. The findings indicated that adolescent relationship qualities may come to influence adult health through decreased levels of later anxiety and depressive symptoms. “Although autonomy-establishing behavior is clearly of value in modern Western society, in which daily survival threats are minimal, it may have become linked to stress reactions over the course of human evolution, when separation from the larger human pack was likely to bring grave danger,” Allen and colleagues write. “From a risk and prevention perspective, difficulty forming close relationships early in adolescence may now be considered a marker of risk for long-term health difficulties,” Allen said. In the future, long-term health promotion efforts may want to consider the quality of social relationships in adolescence in addition to more commonly investigated health risks, such as obesity and smoking, he added.