Children and adolescents often adopt the beliefs and behaviors of those they are closest to. Young people who socialize with aggressive and disruptive children may find themselves acting out in the same way. Likewise, adolescents who become friends with individuals who engage in risky behavior, such as substance use or sexual promiscuity, may also participate in such activities. There has been a wide range of research on the influence of peer association in adolescence. Much of that research is devoted to the effects of depressive behavior, but little attention has been given to the effects of depressive behavior among younger children. Additionally, few studies have looked at the contagious aspect of anxiety among younger and adolescent children.
To address these gaps, Rebecca A. Schwartz-Mette of the Department of Psychological Sciences at the University of Missouri recently led a study that looked specifically at two separate groups of young people. Participants included one group of children in grades 3 to 5, and another from grades 7 to 9. The sample consisted of a total of 274 friend pairs and was examined for levels of anxiety and depression contagion over a period of six months. Schwartz-Mette found that, in line with other studies, depression appeared as a contagion among all the genders and age groups. However, although anxiety exhibited contagion properties in all the females, it manifested in the boys only from the older participant group.
When Schwartz-Mette looked further, she was able to identify a factor that contributed significantly to the depression contagion effect. She discovered that co-rumination, or disclosure and lengthy discussions of depressive feelings, had a major role in the peer effect of depression. She believes that when children are exposed to rumination among friends over time, they may become more vulnerable to internalizing stressful feelings themselves. “These findings highlight a previously unstudied risk factor for the development of internalizing symptoms in childhood,” Schwartz-Mette said. “Most important, a mechanism that helped to account for depression and anxiety contagion was identified.”
Schwartz-Mette, Rebecca A., and Amanda J. Rose. Co-rumination mediates contagion of internalizing symptoms within youths’ friendships. Developmental Psychology 48.5 (2012): 1355-365. Print.
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