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Adolescent depression and friendship

May 23, 2013

Giletta et al. observe that:

Adolescence is a critical period for the onset of depressive symptoms (Angold, Erkanli, Silberg, Eaves, & Costello, 2002; Wade, Cairney, & Pevalin, 2002). During this developmental period, adolescents face important developmental tasks, such as differentiating themselves from their parents and creating new social relationships with peers (see e.g., Buhrmester & Furman, 1987; Harter, 1997). Consequently, negative and stressful peer experiences during adolescence, such as peer rejection and victimization, are salient predictors of depressive symptoms (Galambos, Leadbeater, & Barker, 2004; Joiner & Barnett, 1994; La Greca & Harrison, 2005; Nolan, Flynn, & Garber, 2003; Prinstein, Boergers, & Vernberg, 2001; Vernberg, 1990). On the other hand, positive and supportive peer relationships have been found to be essential for developing personal skills and thus are likely to contribute to adolescent psychological well-being (see e.g., Berndt, 1989; Bukowski, Newcomb, & Hartup, 1996; La Greca & Harrison, 2005).
Yet, adolescents with close and supportive friendship relationships may nevertheless suffer from depressive symptoms. This may be due to a process referred to as depression contagion. Specifically, prior work has theorized that depression may be similar between friends because (a) adolescents select friends who initially are similar to them in their level of depressive symptoms (i.e., referred to as homophilic selection) and/or (b) adolescents’ friends’ depressive symptoms may exacerbate their own depressive symptoms (i.e., referred to as socialization). Although some past research has suggested that friends tend to be similar in their level of depressive symptoms over time (Haselager, Hartup, van Lieshout, & Riksen-Walraven, 1998; Hogue & Steinberg, 1995; Prinstein, 2007; Stevens & Prinstein, 2005; Van Zalk, Kerr, Branje, Stattin, & Meeus, 2010), several issues require further investigation to stringently examine the depression contagion hypothesis.” (p.1804)

Both selection and socialization mechanisms may contribute to similarities found among adolescent friend behaviors (see e.g., Engels, Knibbe, Drop, & de Haan, 1997; Ennett & Bauman, 1994; Kandel, 1978). On the one hand, theories of interpersonal attraction (Byrne, 1971; Kelley & Thibaut, 1978) suggest that people prefer, and are more attracted to, people with similar attitudes and/or behaviors. Thus, adolescents are more likely to select similar peers as friends; this is known as homophilic selection. Experimental studies have provided evidence that depressed people are more attracted to other depressed people (see e.g., Coates & Winston, 1983; Joiner, 1994; Rosenblatt & Greenberg, 1991; Strack & Coyne, 1983). Consequently, adolescents with certain levels of depressive symptoms may be more likely to prefer and ultimately select adolescents with similar levels of depressive symptoms as friends. On the other hand, during the course of a friendship, adolescents may also influence each other, becoming more similar; this has been referred to as socialization.
Together, these processes may pose unique risks for adolescents with high levels of depressive symptoms. A cyclical process (Coyne, 1976) suggests that adolescents with high levels of depressive symptoms may affiliate with one another, and these relationships may maintain or exacerbate the depressive symptoms of each adolescent (Rosenblatt & Greenberg, 1991).” (p.1805)

Van Zalk et al. (2010) …found that adolescents selected their friends on the basis of similarities in depressive symptoms. Moreover, they showed that adolescents and their friends became more similar over time by increasing their depressive symptoms. These findings suggest that changes in levels of depressive symptoms and friendship formations may be strongly interrelated during adolescence. However, because this study focused on the social networks of friends, including different types of friendships (i.e., dyadic and triadic friendships, both unilateral and reciprocal), it is not clear whether the same processes take place specifically within some dyadic relations (i.e., best friend dyads). The importance of examining best friend dyads is based on the close and intimate nature of these relationships. Indeed, because adolescents who are involved in these dyadic relationships are likely to share positive or negative emotions (see e.g., Rose, 2002), they may be more likely to show similar levels of depressive symptoms. Moreover, socialization processes related to depressive symptoms may occur through co-rumination, particularly within friend dyads. The excessive and repeated sharing of personal problems and negative feelings between two close friends may contribute to increases in depressive symptoms (Rose, 2002; Rose, Carlson, & Waller, 2007).” (p.1805)

The study this discussion forms part of “aimed to explore similarity in depressive symptoms between adolescents and their best friends and to examine the homophilic mechanisms that might explain such similarity (i.e., selection and socialization). Similarity and socialization processes were also examined within two types of friendship dyads: class best friends and true best friends. We extended past research on homophily by applying a dyadic approach designed for the study of close relationships with interdependent data. Moreover, the identification of friendships that started and ended at different time points allowed us to clearly identify selection and socialization processes. Overall, the results partially confirm our hypothesis, indicating that similarity in depressive symptoms exists exclusively in female dyads. In particular, we found that socialization processes explained this similarity in female friendships.” (p.1811)

Giletta et al. conclude: “Our results not only failed to provide support for homophilic selection mechanisms (i.e., friends’ selection based on similar characteristics) but also seemed to suggest the opposite; that is, the tendency among female adolescents to select as friends peers with a different level of depressive symptoms. One might speculate that female adolescents with higher levels of depressive symptoms may seek out reassurance or social support specifically from friends with lower levels of depressive symptoms, because this may boost their own psychosocial well-being (Coyne, 1976). Considering that female adolescents perceive more social support from friends than do male adolescents (see e.g., Colarossi & Eccles, 2003; Slavin & Rainer, 1990), it is not surprising that such a selection process emerged only for female friendships. However, given the small effect size, this result needs to be interpreted with caution.
The analyses concerning the enduring friendship group revealed that female friends affected each other’s depressive symptoms over time. This finding suggests that socialization processes may explain similarity in depression. However, such processes are likely to be absent in male friends, because our findings did not show partner effects over time in these dyads. These contrasting findings may be explained by the different roles that friendships play in female compared with male dyads.” (p.1811)

“Female adolescents,” they go on to explain, by way of interpreting this result, “tend to engage in more close and intimate dyadic relationships in which they are more likely to share positive as well as negative feelings (see e.g., Rose, 2002). For instance, self-disclosure and emotional support as well as co-rumination mechanisms are more frequently reported within female than male friendships (see e.g., Buhrmester & Furman, 1987; Rose, 2002; Rose & Rudolph, 2006). Thus, on the one hand, socialization processes might reflect the supportive nature of female friendships. Emotional support between friends might increase friends’ similarity by reducing the level of disparity between dyad members. On the other hand, co-rumination could be a mechanism underlying socialization processes that contribute to an increase in depressive symptoms within female friendships.” (pp.1811-1812)

The authors warn that “Because adolescents are involved in salient friendships that may be established outside the school (see Vandell et al., 2005), school friendships might not represent the most intimate, close, and influential adolescent friendships. Thus, focusing exclusively on school friendships and neglecting other social contexts may provide only limited insight on adolescent friendships (Van Zalk et al., 2010).
Overall, our findings indicated that similarity in depressive symptoms occurs particularly among female adolescents and in close and intimate friendships. In addition, such similarity appeared to be the consequence of friends’ socialization because adolescents did not seem to select peers with levels of depressive symptoms similar to their own. These findings may be interpreted in the framework of interpersonal theories of depression and models of gender-specific peer socialization (see e.g., Rose & Rudolph, 2006).” (p.1812)

In conclusion, they state: “due to the close and intimate nature of their friendships, in which they intensively share their feelings, female adolescents may be more at risk for developing depressive symptoms when interacting with their friends. The picture may be more complex for male adolescents, for whom different mechanisms (e.g., social status) may play a central role in affecting socialization processes related to depressive symptoms. In terms of practical implications, the results suggest that adolescents’ intimate friendships might reflect a salient context on which preventive interventions should focus.” (p.1812) Recognising limitations to their study, the authors write: “it would be important to investigate whether these findings may generalize to clinical populations. Indeed, peer relationships may be particularly difficult for clinically depressed adolescents, and socialization and selection processes may have a different meaning to them.” (p.1813)

Ref: (italics in original; emphases in blue bold, mine) Matteo Giletta, Ron H. J. Scholte, William J. Burk, Rutger C. M. E. Engels, Junilla K. Larsen, Mitchell J. Prinstein, and Silvia Ciairano (2011) Similarity in Depressive Symptoms in Adolescents’ Friendship Dyads: Selection or Socialization? Developmental Psychology 47(6), 1804–1814

Abstract: “This study examined friendship selection and socialization as mechanisms explaining similarity in depressive symptoms in adolescent same-gender best friend dyads. The sample consisted of 1,752 adolescents (51% male) ages 12–16 years (M  13.77, SD  0.73) forming 487 friend dyads and 389 nonfriend dyads (the nonfriend dyads served as a comparison group). To test our hypothesis, we applied a multigroup actor–partner interdependence model to 3 friendship types that started and ended at different time points during the 2 waves of data collection. Results showed that adolescents reported levels of depressive symptoms at follow-up that were similar to those of their best friends. Socialization processes explained the increase in similarity exclusively in female dyads, whereas no evidence for friendship selection emerged for either male or female dyads. Additional analyses revealed that similarity between friends was particularly evident in the actual best friend dyads (i.e., true best friends), in which evidence for socialization processes emerged for both female and male friend dyads. Findings highlight the importance of examining friendship relations as a potential context for the development of depressive symptoms.” [study carried out in the Netherlands]

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