Teen friendships have lasting consequences on depression, success as an adult

April 11, 2023 - Karessa Weir

Department of Sociology faculty Dr. Molly Copeland's most recent research, published in Social Science & Medicine, shows that teen friendships can have lasting consequences for mental health, decades later, in individuals' mid 30s to early 40s.

“Pathways from peers to mental health: Adolescent networks, role attainment, and adult depressive symptoms” was co written with Dr. Christina Kamis (University of Wisconsin-Madison) and Gabriel Varela (Duke University).

The team used national survey data to track the impact of popularity and social ties in grades 7-12 on depressive symptoms in adults in their 30s and 40s. They found that the more popular and connected teens are, the more likely they are to be married, residentially independent, employed and educated. 

“Teens who are connected to school peers are more likely to reach what we typically think of as markers of adulthood by their early 40s - having been married, employed, college educated and residentially independent (e.g. not living with parents),” Copeland wrote. 

The results differ between whether teens are viewed by peers as popular or whether they view themselves as “part of school friendships,” they found. Being seen as popular by peers as a teen relates to being married, residentially independent, employed and college educated as an adult, which in turn predicts lower depressive symptoms. But seeing yourself as having friends - regardless of whether your peers view you as “popular” - predicts having a college degree and being married, also with lower levels of depression. 

“How teen girls view their own friendships also relates directly to lower depressive symptoms when these young women reach their mid-30s/early 40s, even after accounting for adult roles,” they wrote.

For men, being employed relates more strongly to depressive symptoms compared to women, but for men, popularity and sociality as an adolescent still predict the adult roles that in turn relate to depressive symptoms.

The upshot of the research is that parents, teachers and other people involved in the lives of teen girls “should think about connections with peers in school as a developmentally important social resource that can have lasting benefits or detriments for teens, especially girls.”

 Dr. Copeland is an assistant professor of sociology whose research joins social network analysis and medical sociology to examine how social relationships can benefit or introduce risks to health across the life course. Dr. Kamis is a post-doctoral researcher studying aging and the life course and early life predictors of mental health disparities. Mr. Varela is a PhD candidate in sociology at Duke University.