Following the crowd may not always be in a person’s best interest. But new research suggests that teens who go along with their friends may end up healthier as adults.
Scientists have known that close friendships help boost health. Lonely people are more likely to get sick. That’s true for both teens and adults. And people who do their own thing, instead of giving in to peer pressure, may experience unpleasant emotions. Those findings inspired Joseph Allen and his team to look at teen behavior. Allen is a psychologist at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. His group had suspected that experiences during teen years might influence adult health.
So they followed 171 teens, starting when the kids were just 13. They interviewed each one every year for five years. These became the “focal” teens in the study. But they were not the only teens interviewed. The scientists also spoke to the focal teens’ closest friends. Those friends provided additional information about the quality of their friendships.
Allen and his colleagues were most curious about each focal teen’s relationship with his or her closest friend. The teens were asked about both positive and negative aspects of that friendship. The scientists also asked the friends how likely the focal person was to follow the crowd, go along with the friend or insist on doing his or her own thing.
The same 171 people were interviewed again as adults, at ages 25, 26 and 27. This time, the questions surveyed each person’s overall health. When the researchers analyzed the data they found a strong correlation, or link, between a teen’s behavior and adult health. Teens who had close friends grew up to be the healthier adults. The study appeared August 19 in Psychological Science.
Whether teens held in their feelings or expressed them to a close confidant also influenced later health. Those who held back were more likely to be sick as adults. That supports the idea that teen relationships — having people to confide in — may play a big role later.
What’s more, the study found that teens who went along what their friends wanted, rather than being independent, also were healthier in their twenties.
The correlations held up even after the scientists accounted for other possible influences on health. Weight, family income and drug use were all examined. So were mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression. And in these people, such other factors did not explain adult health as well as teen friendships did.
Going along with the crowd may have benefits, says Allen, but there are also drawbacks. Teens who are more independent tend to do better in school and at work. And peer pressure may lead some kids to engage in risky behavior, such as smoking, drinking or using drugs.
Tara Dumas is a psychologist at Canada’s Western University in London, Ontario. She says that the study’s findings not only are interesting but also emphasize the value of teen friendships. But she wants to know what happens when peers encourage each other to behave in ways that are unhealthy, such as smoking or drinking. She wonders whether those friendships still lead to healthier adults.
Dealing with such situations is an ongoing challenge, Allen acknowledges. “Handling peer pressure is not as simple as just saying ‘no,’” he notes. “Finding the right balance is the key. Teens shouldn’t beat themselves up for not finding this easy.” And, he adds, “Parents need to be understanding about the pressures teens face.”
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anxiety A nervous disorder causing excessive uneasiness and apprehension. People with anxiety may even develop panic attacks.
behavior The way a person or other organism acts towards others, or conducts itself.
correlation A mutual relationship or connection between two variables. When there is a positive correlation, an increase in one variable is associated with an increase in the other. (For instance, scientists might correlate an increase in time spent watching TV with an increase in risk of obesity.) Where there is an inverse correlation, an increase in one value is associated with a decrease in the other. (Scientists might correlate an increase in TV watching with a decrease in time spent exercising each week.) A correlation between two variables does not necessarily mean one is causing the other.
depression A mental illness characterized by persistent sadness and apathy. Although these feelings can be triggered by events, such as the death of a loved one or the move to a new city, that isn’t typically considered an “illness” — unless the symptoms are prolonged and harm an individual’s ability to perform normal daily tasks (such as working, sleeping or interacting with others). People suffering from depression often feel they lack the energy needed to get anything done. They may have difficulty concentrating on things or showing an interest in normal events. Many times, these feelings seem to be triggered by nothing; they can appear out of nowhere.
mass A number that shows how much an object resists speeding up and slowing down — basically a measure of how much matter that object is made from. For objects on Earth, we know the mass as “weight.”
norms The attitudes, behaviors or achievements that are considered normal or conventional within a society (or segment of society — such as teens) at the present time.
peer Someone who is an equal, based on age, education, status, training or some other features.
psychology The study of the human mind, especially in relation to actions and behavior. Scientists and mental-health professionals who work in this field are known as psychologists.