Chapter 5: The Health of Canada's Young People: a mental health focus – Peers

Peers

by Heather McCuaig Edge and Wendy Craig

The importance of peers

From childhood to adolescence, peer relationships become increasingly significant sources of support, companionship, information and advice. Peers can have short- and long-term beneficial effects on social, cognitive and academic adjustment (Hartup, 1993; Savin-Williams & Berndt, 1990; Scholte & Van Aken, 2006). Having friends, and having supportive friendships, are associated with positive outcomes, such as feeling good about oneself, feeling connected with others, being positive in outlook, and contributing to successes in subsequent romantic relationships (Hartup, 1993). For young people who establish caring friendships and become members of supportive peer groups, peers can provide a positive context in which to develop (Brown, 1990).

Young peoples' friendships are usually based on common interests and activities initially, but then develop further into more meaningful, intimate relationships based on commitment, loyalty, trust, and reciprocity (Hartup, 1993). Adolescents spend the majority of their time with friends, with contact among best friends occurring daily. These relationships consume several hours each day. Adolescents generally have one or two "best" friends, and several "close" or "good" friends, with whom they interact regularly (Hartup, 1993).

Peers provide young people with developmental opportunities and social possibilities that are not available through relationships with adults —Scholte & Van Aken, 2006.

Young people tend to engage in both positive and negative behaviours with their friends and peer groups. Although having friends is essential to healthy psychological and social development, the quality of relationships, and the types of activities they engage in, are also important to consider when examining the health and well‑being of young people (Berndt, 2004). For example, if friendships are based on shared interests such as drug use, weapon carrying, or delinquency, these can result in negative health outcomes, regardless of the benefits of having friends, whereas if friendships are based on shared interests such as sports and academic pursuits, these can result in more positive health outcomes.

What are we reporting in this chapter?

The HBSC survey gathered information on the peer context by asking students a series of questions about the number of friendships they had with both genders, about spending time with friends, and the extent to which they were close to their friends in a way that allowed them to share matters of concern. In addition, the HBSC survey asked students to estimate how often the group of friends with whom they spent most of their leisure time engaged in a variety of positive and negative activities, such as participating in organized sport activities with others, or getting drunk.

In this chapter, we indicate the percentage of students with three or more same-sex friendships and data on students' ease of communication with these individuals. Similar information on opposite-sex friends is provided. We also report on ease of communication with best friends. Trend data on time spent with friends after school and in the evenings are reported and the percentages of young people who communicate with their friends by phone, text message, and email are presented. The proportion of activities of peers with whom the young person spends most of their leisure time is presented in terms of positive and negative activities. Finally, associations between emotional health outcomes and the following measures are discussed: ease of communication with same-sex friends; with opposite-sex friends; with best-friends; the amount of time spent with friends after school; and the sum of all positive and negative peer group activities.

Same-sex friends

5.1 Students with three or more close same sex friends, by grade and gender (%)

Figure 5.1 - Students with three or more close same sex friends, by grade and gender (%)
[Text Equivalent, Figure 5.1]

5.1 Students with three or more close same sex friends, by grade and gender (%)

Figure 5.1 shows the percentage of students with three or more close same sex friends, by grade and gender. The graph shows that 86% of Grade 6 boys have three or more close same sex friends, compared to 87% of Grade 7 boys, 86% of Grade 8 boys, 84% of Grade 9 boys, and 79% of Grade 10 boys. On the same question, 88% of Grade 6 girls have three or more close same sex friends, compared to 90% of Grade 7 girls, 85% of Grade 8 girls, 83% of Grade 9 girls, and 81% of Grade 10 girls.

Having friends and being able to share concerns with them is regarded by students as a safeguard or buffer against negative life experiences. The number of boys who reported having three or more same-sex friends remained fairly consistent across grades, with slight decreases in Grade 9 and 10 (Figure 5.1). The pattern for girls who reported having three or more close same-sex friends showed a steady decrease from 90% in Grade 7 to 81% in Grade 10. This might reflect developmental changes in peer and intimate relationships with age, where adolescents tend to increase in opposite-sex friendships as they advance from early to later adolescence (Connolly et al., 2000).

5.2 Students who find it easy or very easy to talk to same-sex friends about things that really bother them, by grade and gender (%)

Figure 5.2 - Students who find it easy or very easy to talk to same-sex friends about things that really bother them, by grade and gender (%)
[Text Equivalent, Figure 5.2]

5.2 Students who find it easy or very easy to talk to same-sex friends about things that really bother them, by grade and gender (%)

Figure 5.2 shows the percentage of students who find it easy or very easy to talk to same-sex friends about things that really bother them, by grade and gender. The graph shows that 67% of Grade 6 boys find it easy or very easy to talk to same-sex friends, compared to 71% of Grade 7 boys, 72% of Grade 8 boys, 72% of Grade 9 boys, and 75% of Grade 10 boys. On the same question, 83% of Grade 6 girls find it easy or very easy to talk to same-sex friends, compared to 87% of Grade 7 girls, 86% of Grade 8 girls, 86% of Grade 9 girls, and 86% of Grade 10 girls.

Girls, however, remained more comfortable than boys when talking to same-sex friends about things that really bother them, with a consistent and stable proportion of girls confiding in their same-sex friends, varying from 83% in Grade 6 to 86-87% in Grades 7 to 10 (Figure 5.2). The pattern for boys increased from Grade 6 to Grade 7, then remained consistent across the grades, then increased again between Grade 9 and 10, with over 70% of boys from Grade 7 on, reporting that they talk to their same-sex friends about things that really bother them.

Opposite-sex friends

The proportion of students with three or more close opposite-sex friends remained relatively stable after Grade 7 for boys, but declined slightly in Grade 10. For girls, the proportion of students with three or more close opposite-sex friends remains fairly stable, save for a slight increase in Grade 7 to 63%. Boys seemed to have a higher proportion of three or more close opposite-sex friends than girls from Grade 6 through Grade 10. Young people, even those in Grade 10, were more comfortable having friends of the same sex (see Figure 5.1), rather than of the opposite-sex (Figure 5.3). This could be due to gender socialization expectations, which may characterize relationships with the opposite sex as being associated with physical attraction and romantic involvement rather than friendship (Poulin & Pedersen, 2007).

On the other hand, young people generally became more comfortable talking to their opposite-sex friends in Grade 10 (Figure 5.4), when around 73% of girls and boys reported talking about things that really bothered them to friends of the opposite sex. For both boys and girls, there was a steady increase in the proportion of students who are comfortable talking to opposite-sex friends from Grade 6 to Grade 10. Boys appeared to be more comfortable talking to opposite-sex friends earlier than girls. Finally, young people reported that it was easier to talk to girls than to boys about things that really bother them, likely because they perceive female friends as better sources of help than male friends (Schwartz et al., 2000). However, by Grade 10, both boys and girls reported being equally comfortable talking to opposite sex friends.

5.3 Students with three or more close opposite-sex friends, by grade and gender (%)

Figure 5.3 - Students with three or more close opposite-sex friends, by grade and gender (%)
[Text Equivalent, Figure 5.3]

5.3 Students with three or more close opposite-sex friends, by grade and gender (%)

Figure 5.3 shows the percentage of students with three or more close opposite-sex friends, by grade and gender. The graph shows that 58% of Grade 6 boys have three or more close opposite-sex friends, compared to 64% of Grade 7 boys, 66% of Grade 8 boys, 65% of Grade 9 boys, and 60% of Grade 10 boys. On the same question, 56% of Grade 6 girls have three or more close opposite-sex friends, compared to 63% of Grade 7 girls, 59% of Grade 8 girls, 58% of Grade 9 girls, and 57% of Grade 10 girls.

5.4 Students who find it easy or very easy to talk to opposite-sex friends about things that really bother them, by grade and gender (%)

Figure 5.4 - Students who find it easy or very easy to talk to opposite-sex friends about things that really bother them, by grade and gender (%)
[Text Equivalent, Figure 5.4]

5.4 Students who find it easy or very easy to talk to opposite-sex friends about things that really bother them, by grade and gender (%)

Figure 5.4 shows the percentage of students who find it easy or very easy to talk to opposite-sex friends about things that really bother them, by grade and gender. The graph shows that 45% of Grade 6 boys find it easy or very easy to talk to opposite-sex friends, compared to 54% of Grade 7 boys, 61% of Grade 8 boys, 65% of Grade 9 boys, and 73% of Grade 10 boys. On the same question, 37% of Grade 6 girls find it easy or very easy to talk to opposite-sex friends, compared to 48% of Grade 7 girls, 59% of Grade 8 girls, 66% of Grade 9 girls, and 73% of Grade 10 girls.

Best friends

5.5 Students who find it easy or very easy to talk to a best friend about things that really bother them, by grade and gender (%)

Figure 5.5 - Students who find it easy or very easy to talk to a best friend about things that really bother them, by grade and gender (%)
[Text Equivalent, Figure 5.5]

5.5 Students who find it easy or very easy to talk to a best friend about things that really bother them, by grade and gender (%)

Figure 5.5 shows the percentage of students who find it easy or very easy to talk to a best friend about things that really bother them, by grade and gender. The graph shows that 76% of Grade 6 boys find it easy or very easy to talk to a best friend, compared to 79% of Grade 7 boys, 80% of Grade 8 boys, 82% of Grade 9 boys, and 84% of Grade 10 boys. On the same question, 88% of Grade 6 girls find it easy or very easy to talk to a best friend, compared to 91% of Grade 7 girls, 92% of Grade 8 girls, 92% of Grade 9 girls, and 90% of Grade 10 girls.

Confiding in one's best friend regarding things that are bothersome was very common for school-aged young people, particularly for girls across the five grades (Figure 5.5). This finding is not surprising, since a one-to-one relationship with a best friend is generally more intimate, with self-disclosure, than friendships that are within a peer group.

Further, in general, girls' friendships tend to be characterized more by intimacy, loyalty, and closeness than boys' friendships, which might explain why levels of ease of talking to a best friend were fairly consistent for girls across grades (Connolly et al., 2000; Poulin & Pederson, 2007). However, the increase for boys in ease of talking to a best friend across grades may also reflect consistent developmental changes in how and when boys interact with others (Bowker, 2004).

Interactions with friends

5.6 Students who spend four or five days a week with friends right after school, by grade, gender and year of survey (%)

Figure 5.6 - Students who spend four or five days a week with friends right after school, by grade, gender and year of survey (%)
[Text Equivalent, Figure 5.6]

5.6 Students who spend four or five days a week with friends right after school, by grade, gender and year of survey (%)

Figure 5.6 is a line graph that shows the approximate percentage of students who spend four or five days a week with friends right after school, by grade, gender and year of survey. The graph shows that among Grade 6 boys, approximately 48% reported spending four or five days a week with friends right after school in 1994, compared to approximately 37% in 1998, approximately 44% in 2002, approximately 43% in 2006, and approximately 32% in 2010. Among Grade 8 boys, approximately 48% reported spending four or five days a week with friends right after school in 1994, compared to approximately 37% in 1998, approximately 36% in 2002, approximately 42% in 2006, and approximately 32% in 2010. Among Grade 10 boys, approximately 48% reported spending four or five days a week with friends right after school in 1994, compared to approximately 37% in 1998, approximately 36% in 2002, approximately 31% in 2006, and approximately 32% in 2010. On the same question, among Grade 6 girls, approximately 38% reported spending four or five days a week with friends right after school in 1994, compared to approximately 30% in 1998, approximately 35% in 2002, approximately 35% in 2006, and approximately 25% in 2010. Among Grade 8 girls, approximately 36% reported spending four or five days a week with friends right after school in 1994, compared to approximately 30% in 1998, approximately 27% in 2002, approximately 35% in 2006, and approximately 25% in 2010. Among Grade 10 girls, approximately 32% reported spending four or five days a week with friends right after school in 1994, compared with approximately 27% in 1998, approximately 22% in 2002, approximately 20% in 2006, and approximately 25% in 2010.

Figures 5.6 and 5.7 present findings related to interacting with friends outside of school. A downward trend was noticeable for Grade 10 students over the past five HBSC survey cycles for youth who spend four to five days a week with friends right after school (Figure 5.6). For example, 32% of Grade 10 boys and 25% of Grade 10 girls reported spending time with friends four to five days a week right after school in 2010, compared to 48% of boys and 32% of girls in 1994. There was a slight increase for Grade 10 girls from 20% in 2006 to 25% in 2010. Possible explanations for this downward trend may be increased involvement in structured activities after school or increased communication with friends using social media (e.g., Facebook).

5.7 Students who spend five or more evenings a week with friends, by grade, gender and year of survey (%)

Figure 5.7 - Students who spend five or more evenings a week with friends, by grade, gender and year of survey (%)
[Text Equivalent, Figure 5.7]

5.7 Students who spend five or more evenings a week with friends, by grade, gender and year of survey (%)

Figure 5.7 is a line graph that shows the approximately percentage of students who spend five or more evenings a week with friends, by grade, gender and year of survey. The graph shows that among Grade 6 boys, approximately 23% reported spending five or more evenings a week with friends in 1994, compared to approximately 25% in 1998, approximately 17% in 2002, approximately 19% in 2006, and approximately 18% in 2010. Among Grade 8 boys, approximately 28% reported spending five or more evenings a week with friends in 1994, compared to approximately 33% in 1998, approximately 19% in 2002, approximately 27% in 2006, and approximately 18% in 2010. Among Grade 10 boys, approximately 27% reported spending five or more evenings a week with friends in 1994, compared to approximately 28% in 1998, approximately 19% in 2002, approximately 21% in 2006, and approximately 20% in 2010. On the same question, among Grade 6 girls, approximately 18% reported spending five or more evenings a week with friends in 1994, compared to approximately 20% in 1998, approximately 16% in 2002, approximately 17% in 2006, and approximately 14% in 2010. Among Grade 8 girls, approximately 22% reported spending five or more evenings a week with friends in 1994, compared to approximately 24% in 1998, approximately 19% in 2002, approximately 22% in 2006, and approximately 17% in 2010. Among Grade 10 girls, approximately 22% reported spending five or more evenings a week with friends in 1994, compared to approximately 24% in 1998, approximately 14% in 2002, approximately 14% in 2006, and approximately 19% in 2010.

There was a similar decline across survey cycles in evenings spent out with friends for both boys and girls (Figure 5.7). In 2010, 20% of Grade 10 boys reported spending five or more evenings a week out with friends, compared to 27% of boys in 1994. For Grade 10 girls, there was an increase from 14% in 2006 to 19% in 2010, though this is less than the 22% of girls who spent five or more evenings a week out with friends in 1994.

Several reasons for the general decline over the past 16 years are possible, such as: increased percentages of youth who have part time jobs after school and on weekends; increased involvement in after school structured activities; or potentially increased electronic communication capacity that replaces the need for direct face-to-face contact among young people.

5.8 Talking to friends on the phone or sending them text or e-mail messages five or more times a week, by grade and gender (%)

Figure 5.8 - Talking to friends on the phone or sending them text or e-mail messages five or more times a week, by grade and gender (%)
[Text Equivalent, Figure 5.8]

5.8 Talking to friends on the phone or sending them text or e-mail messages five or more times a week, by grade and gender (%)

Figure 5.8 shows the percentage of students who talk to friends on the phone or send them text or email messages five or more times a week, by grade and gender. The graph shows that 36% of Grade 6 boys talk to friends on the phone or send them text or e-mail messages five or more times a week, compared to 46% of Grade 7 boys, 54% of Grade 8 boys, 61% of Grade 9 boys, and 65% of Grade 10 boys. On the same question, 46% of grade six girls talk to friends on the phone or send them text or email messages five or more times a week, compared to 66% of Grade 7 girls, 73% of Grade 8 girls, 78% of Grade 9 girls, and 78% of Grade 10 girls.

We also asked students about their use of phones, texting, and e-mail to contact their friends. Figure 5.8 illustrates that there was a steady increase in the use of these technologies to communicate with friends, with age. This might reflect increasing popularity and availability of cellular and Smartphones for older adolescents, who rely on these modes of communication for socializing with peers (Lenhart, Ling, Campbell, & Purcell, 2010; Li, 2007).

There was also a consistent increase in the use of technology for socializing with friends with increasing age for both boys and girls, although significantly more girls than boys were involved. For girls, staying connected to their friends was critically important, versus boys who tended to use the technology in order to make a plan (Sibrahmanyam & Greenfield, 2008).

Peer groups tend to develop norms and expectations for activities and behaviours of group members (Brown, 1990). As such, behaviours and activities of peer group members can influence the kinds of behavioural norms that young people internalize (Hartup, 1993).

Both boys and girls in Grade 9 and 10 reported that their peers participated in positive activities quite regularly. The majority of students reported that their peers did well at school, participated in organized sports with others, helped others in need, and got along well with their parents, with fewer students reporting that their peers participated in cultural activities other than sports and engaging in activities that involved caring for the environment. Grade 9 and 10 girls reported that their peers got along well with their parents, helped others in need, participated in cultural activities other than sports more, and cared for the environment more than boys.

Table 5.1: Positive peer group activities: percentages of Grades 9 and 10 students indicating that the group of friends with whom they spend most of their leisure time report the following activities "often" or "sometimes" (%)
Positive Peer Group Activities Grade 9 Grade 10
Most of the friends in my group… Boys Girls Boys Girls
do well at school 90 95 91 95
participate in organized sports activities with others 85 85 86 86
participate in cultural activities other than sports 50 53 49 53
get along well with their parents 80 86 82 89
care for the environment 59 71 62 72
help others in need 69 82 71 81

Both Grade 9 and 10 boys and girls reported similar levels of peer participation in negative group activities with the exception of weapon carrying, where 14% of boys and 7% of girls reported that their peers carried weapons often or sometimes. Approximately half of Grade 9 and 10 boys and girls reported that their group of friends regularly had sexual relationships, or got drunk, while 39% of boys and 37% of girls reported that their friends had used drugs to get stoned.

Table 5.2: Risky peer group activities: percentages of Grades 9 and 10 students indicating the group of friends with whom they spend most of their leisure time engage in the following activities "often" or "sometimes" (%)
Risky Peer Group Activities Grade 9 Grade 10
Most of the friends in my group… Boys Girls Boys Girls
smoke cigarettes 27 25 32 32
get drunk 47 50 64 63
have used drugs to get stoned 33 31 45 43
carry weapons 14 7 14 7
have sexual relationships 48 45 59 60

Relationships between peers and mental health

Friendships and mental health

Peers and friendships can have both positive and negative effects on mental health in young people. The quality of a friendship, and the ease with which one can speak to best friends, same sex friends, or opposite sex friends, may have a positive effect on emotional health outcomes, in that friends can provide a buffer from difficult life circumstances (Berndt, 2004), and can contribute to confidence and self-esteem, which leads to overall well‑being and mental health.

On the other hand, not having friends on whom they can rely to talk about things that bother them, can have negative mental health outcomes, including emotional and behavioural adjustment difficulties (Waldrip, Malcolm, & Jensen-Campbell, 2008). Further, although having friends can have positive health outcomes, the quality of the friendships, and the types of activities that are engaged in with those friends, can lead to negative behavioural and emotional outcomes (Hartup, 1996).

Whoever you hang out with has a great impact on you.

—Youth, Healthy Advice Workshop

5.9 Students reporting high levels of emotional problems by ease of talking to best friend, by gender (%) 1

Figure 5.9 - Students reporting high levels of emotional problems by ease of talking to best friend, by gender (%) *
[Text Equivalent, Figure 5.9]

5.9 Students reporting high levels of emotional problems by ease of talking to best friend, by gender (%) *

Figure 5.9 shows the percentage of students reporting high levels of emotional problems based on how easy they find talking to their best friend, by gender. The graph shows that 25% of boys who find it easy to talk to their best friend report high levels of emotional problems, compared to 28% of boys who find it difficult. On the same question, 38% of girls who find it easy to talk to their best friend report high levels of emotional problems, compared to 59% of girls who find it difficult.

Figure 5.9 shows levels of emotional problems associated with the ease of talking to best friends. Young people who found it hard to talk to best friends about things that bothered them tended to have higher levels of emotional problems than young people who found it easier to talk to friends. This was especially true for girls. Substantially more girls than boys who reported difficulty in talking with friends scored higher on the emotional problems scale. Though this relationship was also apparent for boys, the relationship was not as strong as it was for girls.

5.10 Students reporting high levels of behavioural problems by ease of talking to best friend, by gender (%)

Figure 5.10 - Students reporting high levels of behavioural problems by ease of talking to best friend, by gender (%)
[Text Equivalent, Figure 5.10]

5.10 Students reporting high levels of behavioural problems by ease of talking to best friend, by gender (%)

Figure 5.10 shows the percentage of students reporting high levels of behavioural problems based on how easy they find talking to their best friend, by gender. The graph shows that 40% of boys who find it easy to talk to their best friends report high levels of behavioural problems, compared to 36% of boys who find it difficult. On the same question, 31% of girls who find it easy to talk to their best friends report high levels of behavioural problems, compared to 30% of girls who find it difficult.

With respect to behavioural problems, a higher percentage of boys reported high levels of such problems among those who found it easy to talk to best friends, while no such association was identified for girls (Figure 5.10). More boys than girls reported behavioural problems in both groups.

If you don't have good relationships with your parents, you can always turn to your friends. It is really good to have good relationships with your peers or other adults if you don't have good relationships with your parents. Support is important.

—Youth, Healthy Advice Workshop

5.11 Students reporting high levels of emotional well‑being by ease of talking to best friend, by gender (%)

Figure 5.11 - Students reporting high levels of emotional well‑being by ease of talking to best friend, by gender (%)
[Text Equivalent, Figure 5.11]

5.11 Students reporting high levels of emotional well‑being by ease of talking to best friend, by gender (%)

Figure 5.11 shows the percentage of students reporting high levels of emotional well‑being based on how easy they find talking to their best friend, by gender. The graph shows that 44% of boys who find it easy to talk to their best friend report high levels of emotional well‑being, compared to 32% of boys who find it difficult. On the same question, 32% of girls who find it easy to talk to their best friend report high levels of emotional well‑being, compared to 20% of girls who find it difficult.

5.12 Students reporting high levels of prosocial behaviour by ease of talking to best friend, by gender (%)

Figure 5.12 - Students reporting high levels of prosocial behaviour by ease of talking to best friend, by gender (%)
[Text Equivalent, Figure 5.12]

5.12 Students reporting high levels of prosocial behaviour by ease of talking to best friend, by gender (%)

Figure 5.12 shows the percentage of students who report high levels of prosocial behaviour based on how easy they find talking to their best friend, by gender. The graph shows that 31% of boys who find it easy to talk to their best friend report high levels of prosocial behaviour, compared to 19% of boys who find it difficult. On the same question, 45% of girls who find it easy to talk to their best friend report high levels of prosocial behaviour, compared to 37% of girls who find it difficult.

An alternative way of examining the association between ease of talking with best friends and mental health is from the perspective of positive mental health. Substantial increases in emotional well‑being were reported by boys and girls if they found it easy versus difficult to talk with a best friend (Figure 5.11). The same general pattern was also observed for prosocial behaviours (Figure 5.12).

Associations between ease of talking with friends and the mental health indicators were repeated with two other indicators of peer relationships: (1) ease of talking to same sex friends about things that bother them; (2) ease of talking with opposite sex friends about things that bother them. The same general patterns emerged in all of these analyses. Reports that it was easy to talk with a friend were associated with lower levels of emotional problems and higher levels of emotional well‑being and prosocial behaviours, especially among girls. One of the important functions of friends is intimacy and self-disclosure. Not having a friend who students are able to talk to freely may leave them isolated and increase the likelihood of having emotional problems. Having friends with whom young people can talk to easily is clearly associated with positive mental health. Reports that it was easy to speak with a friend were also associated with slightly higher levels of behavioural problems, especially among boys. Ease of talking to best friends may be associated with some aspects of behavioural problems.

Risky peer group activities and mental health

5.13 Students reporting high levels of emotional problems by risky peer group activities, by gender (%)

Figure 5.13 - Students reporting high levels of emotional problems by risky peer group activities, by gender (%)
[Text Equivalent, Figure 5.13]

5.13 Students reporting high levels of emotional problems by risky peer group activities, by gender (%)

Figure 5.13 shows the percentage of students reporting high levels of emotional problems based on risky peer group activities, by gender. The graph shows that 26% of boys with low levels of risky peer group activities report high levels of emotional problems, compared to 20% of boys with medium levels, and 29% of boys with high levels. On the same question, 38% of girls with low levels of risky peer group activities report high levels of emotional problems, compared to 40% of girls with medium levels and 52% of girls with high levels.

5.14 Students reporting high levels of behavioural problems by risky peer group activities, by gender (%)

Figure 5.14 - Students reporting high levels of behavioural problems by risky peer group activities, by gender (%)
[Text Equivalent, Figure 5.14]

5.14 Students reporting high levels of behavioural problems by risky peer group activities, by gender (%)

Figure 5.14 shows the percentage of students reporting high levels of behavioural problems based on risky peer group activities, by gender. The graph shows that 36% of boys with low levels of risky peer group activities report high levels of behavioural problems, compared to 43% of boys with medium levels, and 70% of boys with high levels. On the same question, 27% of girls with low levels of risky peer group activities report high levels of behavioural problems, compared to 34% of girls with medium levels and 60% of girls with high levels.

Figures 5.13 and 5.14 depict negative mental health outcomes by risky peer group activities. Girls who reported that their peer group engaged in higher levels of negative peer group activities (e.g., smoking, drinking, drug use, carrying weapons, sexual relationships) also reported higher levels of emotional and behavioural problems. This was true for boys for behavioural problems only. Both boys and girls whose peers engaged in more negative activities also reported significantly higher levels of behavioural problems. This suggests that negative peer group activities are clearly related to indicators of mental health.

You want to have people who are also negative. Always positive, it's too much.

—Youth, Healthy Advice Workshop

5.15 Students reporting high levels of emotional well‑being by risky peer group activities, by gender (%)

Figure 5.15 - Students reporting high levels of emotional well‑being by risky peer group activities, by gender (%)
[Text Equivalent, Figure 5.15]

5.15 Students reporting high levels of emotional well‑being by risky peer group activities, by gender (%)

Figure 5.15 shows the percentage of students reporting high levels of emotional well‑being based on risky peer group activities, by gender. The graph shows that 42% of boys with low levels of risky peer group activities report high levels of emotional well‑being, compared to 45% of boys with medium levels, and 40% of boys with high levels. On the same question, 32% of girls with low levels of risky peer group activities report high levels of emotional well‑being, compared to 32% of girls with medium levels, and 25% of girls with high levels.

5.16 Students reporting high levels of prosocial behaviour by risky peer group activities, by gender (%)

Figure 5.16 - Students reporting high levels of prosocial behaviour by risky peer group activities, by gender (%)
[Text Equivalent, Figure 5.16]

5.16 Students reporting high levels of prosocial behaviour by risky peer group activities, by gender (%)

Figure 5.16 shows the percentage of students reporting high levels of prosocial behaviour based on risky peer group activities, by gender. The graph shows that 29% of boys with low levels of risky peer activities report high levels of prosocial behaviour, compared to 33% of boys with medium levels, and 31% of boys with high levels. On the same question, 44% of girls with low levels of risky peer activities report high levels of prosocial behaviour, compared to 47% of girls with medium levels, and 42% of girls with high levels.

Again, an alternative approach to the examination of these relationships is to look at associations between risky peer group activities and positive indicators of mental health. For both boys and girls, young people who reported that their peer group engaged in higher levels of negative peer group activities also reported lower levels of emotional well‑being (Figure 5.15) and prosocial behaviours (Figure 5.16). It appears that young people who reported that their peers engaged in medium levels of negative peer group activities were more associated with higher levels of emotional well‑being and prosocial behaviours than low levels of negative peer group activities. This may be reflecting adolescent experimentation with "recklessness" (Arnett, 1992), or a desire to fit in with peers (Carroll, Houghton, Hattie, & Durkin, 1999).

Nonetheless, young people who reported low levels of negative peer group activity also reported more emotional well‑being than young people who reported high levels of negative peer group activity. This relationship was not the case for boys and prosocial behaviour, however, where boys who reported their friends engaged in low levels of negative activities also reported the lowest levels of prosocial behaviour. This suggests that the association between levels of negative peer group activities and positive outcomes is complicated and involves gender differences, as well as some levels of negative peer behaviours contributing to positive outcomes.

People that take you to do things like tagging the school or using drugs can also be people that give you positive support.

—Youth, Healthy Advice Workshop

Positive peer group activities and mental health

5.17 Students reporting high levels of emotional problems by positive peer group activities, by gender (%)

Figure 5.17 - Students reporting high levels of emotional problems by positive peer group activities, by gender (%)
[Text Equivalent, Figure 5.17]

5.17 Students reporting high levels of emotional problems by positive peer group activities, by gender (%)

Figure 5.17 shows the percentage of students reporting high levels of emotional problems based on positive peer group activities, by gender. The graph shows that 32% of boys with low levels positive peer group activities report high levels of emotional problems, compared to 22% of boys with medium levels and 25% of boys with high levels. On the same question, 51% of girls with low levels of positive peer group activities report high levels of emotional problems, compared to 39% of girls with medium levels, and 39% of girls with high levels.

5.18 Students reporting high levels of behavioural problems by positive peer group activities, by gender (%)

Figure 5.18 - Students reporting high levels of behavioural problems by positive peer group activities, by gender (%)
[Text Equivalent, Figure 5.18]

5.18 Students reporting high levels of behavioural problems by positive peer group activities, by gender (%)

Figure 5.18 shows the percentage of students reporting high levels of behavioural problems based on positive peer group activities, by gender. The graph shows that 52% of boys with low levels of positive peer group activities report high levels of behavioural problems, compared to 45% of boys with medium levels, and 37% of boys with high levels. On the same question, 47% of girls with low levels of positive peer group activities report high levels of behavioural problems, compared to 35% of girls with medium levels and 29% of girls with high levels.

Boys and girls who reported that their peer group engaged in fewer positive peer group activities (e.g., doing well at school, helping others in need, participating in organized sports activities or other cultural activities, getting along well with parents, or caring for the environment) also reported higher levels of emotional and behavioural problems (Figures 5.17 and 5.18). There was a downward pattern in levels of negative outcomes as positive peer activities increased for both boys and girls. While in general girls reported more emotional problems than boys, as positive peer group activities increased, levels of emotional problems declined for both boys and girls. In general, boys reported slightly more behavioural problems than girls, and a similar decrease in levels of behavioural problems appeared as positive peer group activities increased. This suggests that positive peer group activities are associated with reduced levels of problematic mental health indicators.

5.19 Students reporting high levels of emotional well‑being by positive peer group activities, by gender (%)

Figure 5.19 - Students reporting high levels of emotional well‑being by positive peer group activities, by gender (%)
[Text Equivalent, Figure 5.19]

5.19 Students reporting high levels of emotional well‑being by positive peer group activities, by gender (%)

Figure 5.19 shows the percentage of students reporting high levels of emotional well‑being based on positive peer group activities, by gender. The graph shows that 27% of boys with low levels of positive peer group activities report high levels of emotional well‑being, compared to 44% of boys with medium levels, and 43% of boys with high levels. On the same question, 19% of girls with low levels of positive peer group activities report high levels of emotional well‑being, compared to 29% of girls with medium levels, and 32% of girls with high levels.

5.20 Students reporting high levels of prosocial behaviour by positive peer group activities, by gender (%)

Figure 5.20 - Students reporting high levels of prosocial behaviour by positive peer group activities, by gender (%)
[Text Equivalent, Figure 5.20]

5.20 Students reporting high levels of prosocial behaviour by positive peer group activities, by gender (%)

Figure 5.20 shows the percentage of students reporting high levels of prosocial behaviour based on positive peer group activities, by gender. The graph shows that 19% of boys with low levels of positive peer group activities report high levels of prosocial behaviour, compared to 23% of boys with medium levels, and 31% of boys with high levels. On the same question, 31% of girls with low levels of positive peer group activities report high levels of prosocial behaviour, compared to 40% of girls with medium levels and 46% of girls with high levels.

Figures 5.19 and 5.20 depict the association between positive peer group activities and positive outcomes of emotional well‑being and prosocial behaviour. Young people who reported that their peer group engaged in higher levels of positive peer group activities also reported higher levels of emotional well‑being and prosocial behaviour than young people who reported lower levels of positive peer group activities. There was an upward pattern in levels of prosocial behaviour as positive peer activities increased for both boys and girls. For girls, an upward trend in levels of positive peer group activity was associated with higher levels of emotional well‑being, while for boys, this pattern was not apparent. For boys, those who reported medium levels of positive peer group activities had slightly higher levels of emotional well‑being than those who reported high levels of positive peer activities, though levels were fairly similar, and were significantly higher than for boys who reported low levels of positive peer group activities. In general, girls reported more prosocial behaviour than boys, while boys reported significantly more emotional well‑being than girls at all levels of peer group activity. These results suggest that increasing levels of positive peer group activities are associated with higher levels of positive mental health outcomes for young people.

What young people thought about these findings

According to the students at the youth engagement workshop, the research results describe accurately the strengths and challenges associated with friendships for youth. On the one hand, friendships provide ongoing support and intimacy for youth to discuss their issues. On the other hand, while many of them have friends who engage in positive activities, there is a significant proportion of students who have friends who engage in risky behaviours. The students' thoughts reflect their mixed feelings about having friends who engage in both positive and negative behaviours. There is a critical need to support youth to engage in healthy activities with their friends and to reduce risky behaviour and activities.

Summary and implications

Key issues of concern

  1. Many students report hanging around friends who engage in risky activities such as smoking, getting drunk, using drugs, and engaging in sexual activities.
  2. Young people who report that they find it difficult to talk to their friends, are more likely to report emotional problems.
  3. Having peers who engage in risky activities increases the risk for both emotional and behavioural problems and is related to reduced emotional well‑being.
  4. Young people who report that their peer group engages in higher levels of positive peer group activities also report higher levels of mental health.

Key issues to celebrate

  1. A strong majority of students report having a best friend and being able to talk to their friends about things that are bothering them.
  2. Students who have friends who engage in positive behaviours are more likely to be more prosocial and have higher levels of emotional well‑being.
  3. Over 85% of students report hanging out with friends who engage in positive activities such as sports, helping others, getting along with their parents, or doing well at school.

Commentary

This research confirms that peers are important socialization agents for children and youth. Two specific messages are apparent from the findings. First, young people need friends: they are a protective factor against emotional and behavioural problems, and having friends to talk to promotes emotional well‑being. When students do not have friends or are not accepted in a peer group, they might miss opportunities for acquiring the important social skills and behaviours necessary for development. Without peer opportunities, the person could be disadvantaged because he or she is lacking opportunities for positive peer socialization and therefore is unable to develop the relationship competencies required to engage in healthy relationships. Thus, it is critical for adults who are responsible for youth to actively provide or structure opportunities in which peers interact with one another in order to facilitate the development of necessary skills for interpersonal interactions. This active structuring of youth's social environment is referred to as social architecture. If adults are not aware of the dynamics in young people's peer groups, natural peer processes will place some youth at risk for being isolated and without a peer group. In addition, it is important to discourage groupings of adolescents who are similarly aggressive and engage in aggressive and other risky behaviours together. When troubled young people are together, they reinforce each other's negative behaviors and help each other become even more aggressive and engage in more risky behaviours.

Second, it is also important for adults to monitor youths' social groups. Through their relationships, peers socialize one another by communicating social information regarding norms, standards, expectations and values for the culture in which the interactions occur, and by providing experiences and occasions for practicing skills and abilities (Wentzel, 2009). In addition, over the course of relationships and interactions, peers tend to become more similar to one another through the process of mutual socialization (Hartup, 1996). Through their interactions, both parties in the relationship tend to influence one another over time by reinforcing or validating common interests, attitudes, or behaviours, which can result in both parties converging to become more similar to one another than at the inception of the relationship. This socialization process likely occurs through modeling or reinforcement of behaviours, provision of opportunities to engage in various activities or experiences, peer pressure, antagonism, or providing assistance or instruction.

In this research, it is evident that youth socialize each other both positively and negatively. Those who have friends who engage in positive behaviours are less likely to experience emotional and behavioural problems. Those with friends who engage in negative behaviors are more likely to have emotional problems in particular. By monitoring and actively engaging in social architecture, adults can influence the socialization patterns and decrease the risk for emotional and behavioural problems. Social architecture can be undertaken by all adults who socialize youth: the teacher who arranges groups for projects or where students are sitting in the classroom; the coach who determines who plays with whom or who practises with whom on the team; the parent who can supervise and monitor the friends in the home and their activities, etc. Thus, adults need to actively support youth in their friendships to ensure that they have friends and that their friends are positively influencing them.

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  1. 25% of boys who find it easy or very easy to talk to their best friend about things that really bother them report relatively high levels of emotional health problems, compared with 38% of girls who find it easy or very easy to talk to their best friend about things that really bother them. A full explanation of how to interpret the figures that relate to mental health is provided in Chapter 1.
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