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Why Having Fewer Friends in High School Has Major Benefits

Dr. Elizabeth Yuko is the Health Editor at SheKnows. She is a bioethicist and writer specializing in sexual and reproductive health and the intersection of bioethics and popular culture. She is an adjunct professor of ethics at Fordham ...

The surprising way high school friendships impact your mental health as an adult

Like many people, I did not flourish in high school. But it turns out, not being surrounded by legions of adoring classmates isn’t necessarily a bad thing. A new study found that having a few close friendships in high school is better for your mental and emotional health as an adult than running with the cool crowd.

"High school students with higher-quality best friendships tended to improve in several aspects of mental health over time, while teens who were popular among their peers during high school may be more prone to social anxiety later in life," Rachel K. Narr, a Ph.D. candidate in clinical psychology at the University of Virginia who led the study, said in a news release.

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The research, published in the journal Child Development, tracked a group of 169 racially, ethnically and socioeconomically diverse adolescents across a 10-year period, from the ages of 15 to 25, each year checking in on their friendships and mental health. The study was particularly concerned with what they termed “high-quality friendships,” which were defined as close friendships with a degree of attachment and support that also involve exchanging intimate information.

Turns out, teens who were more focused on a few close friendships at age 15 had lower social anxiety, an increased sense of self-worth and fewer symptoms of depression by the time they turned 25 than their peers who did not report the same high-quality friendships. Along the same lines, the teens who were popular in high school had higher levels of social anxiety as young adults.

So why is this the case? The researchers think that this may be because having positive experiences with friends during adolescence might help you feel better about yourself as you head into adulthood. These close high school friendships also make us feel more supported, which may encourage us to seek out similar supportive people as we mature.

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“Being well-liked by a large group of people cannot take the place of forging deep, supportive friendships,” Joseph Allen, a Hugh P. Kelly professor of psychology at the University of Virginia and co-author of the study, explained in a news release. “And these experiences stay with us, over and above what happens later.” 

I can confirm this research with my own small empirical study (sample size = 1). I was not necessarily what you would categorize as “popular” in high school, but I did have friends — one close friend in particular who made me feel better about everything. Fast-forward an undisclosed number of years since we graduated, and she’s an even more important part of my life and supporter of my mental health than before. Sharing intimate details — especially about our families, mental health and writing — was an important component of our relationship in high school and still features prominently today, and I know I’m better off because of her.

So thanks, high-quality friends and science! And sorry, popular kids — you had your time to shine.

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