Friends inhabit your teenagers’ world every day at school, on sports teams, and in their hang-out time. The impact and influence of friendships are undeniable. According to new research, that influence can be wildly positive…and potentially troubling.
A Barna Group survey of more than 1,000 parents of kids ages 4 to 17 reveals that kids spend their after-school hours (from dismissal bell to dinner bell) in a variety of ways. Unsurprisingly, 65 percent do homework, while 64 percent also watch TV and/or movies. But they’re not alone; 22 percent of kids spend a portion of most afternoons “hanging out with friends.” And the numbers undoubtedly increase when you factor in activities such as texting with friends (something 27 percent do) and playing organized sports (which 23 percent do).
Unless teenagers are truly alone, they’re spending lots of formative time with friends. And the influence of those friends can be either good or bad.
Let’s start with the good. New research reveals that having a best friend while you’re young can lead to happiness and health in adulthood. In the study, a wide variety of adolescents were interviewed at age 15 and again at 16 to determine who their friends were, the quality of those relationships, and the teenagers’ overall mental health. Almost a decade later, the young adults were interviewed again. Those who had a close, strong friend during the teen years instead of just a group of peers had “higher levels of self-worth and lower levels of social anxiety and depression” in their mid-20s.
In addition to the actual friendship, the effort and skill required to initiate, cultivate, and protect that relationship are equally important to young adults’ later health. Citing the critical timing of identity formation during adolescence, researcher Dr. Rachel Narr says, “It gives these kids the knowledge that they can build these extra-family relationships.” In other words, forging long-lasting friendships helps kids learn social abilities that serve them well down the road.
But those abilities don’t make everyone invincible. Here’s the bad news: All teenagers are susceptible to depression, but girls seem far more vulnerable than boys. In a recent five-year study, 14 percent of teenage boys and 36 percent of teenage girls have experienced depression.
Several possibilities factor into the increasing rates of depression among teens: puberty, stress, and of course, friends…especially friends who struggle with depression. Yet both girls and boys face these challenges. So why do girls suffer from depression more frequently? Researchers point to the “hard-wiring” of girls as a possible explanation:
- Girls tend to be more sensitive to distress in other people’s lives.
- Girls are exposed to a wider variety of stressors.
- Girls internalize and ruminate more in response to stress.
- Girls are less likely to employ humor as a way to cope with stress.
In no way should this be translated as “girls are weak.” Many girls show deep empathy for hurting friends, yet in the process they also can fall victim to a friend’s struggles. That’s where parents and youth workers can make a big impact.
Here are two simple ideas:
Insert yourself into the lives of your kids’ friends.
No, don’t stalk them or crash every sleepover. Simply start by following them on social media. Make an effort to meet new “friends,” even if they never become more than acquaintances. Elevate your game from time to time by seeing a movie together and then discussing it over ice cream. Take a spontaneous road trip to make some fun memories. The underlying goal is to seek out precious contact time with the young people who are influencing your teenagers.
Frequently address the influence of friendships.
Use yourself as an example, sharing whether you were a leader or a follower in the friend department. Also talk about how that impacted you, whether for good or bad. Friendship is a deeply personal issue for many teenagers, so don’t lecture or wag your finger to get the point across. In fact, the best strategy is to ask great questions. The Source for Youth Ministry offers tons of free resources that tackle the topic from a biblical perspective. Here’s a Music Discussion about choosing good friends. Here’s a Movie Clip Discussion that lists qualities of great friends. (For many more, go to our Movie Clip Discussions page and search for “friendship.”) Interact on the topic frequently so teenagers are equipped to make wise choices.
We know that friends have a long-term effect on our kids. Let’s do all we can to make sure that influence is positive.