A new study by researchers at the University of Vermont and the University of Minnesota, has cited that social problems are more likely to contribute to anxiety and depression than vice versa. Also, this phenomenon is more evident during the transition from adolescence into young adulthood.
From what we see around us, socially active children tend to have fewer symptoms of anxiety or depression, while children with problems such as anxiety and depression face difficulties forming relationships and being accepted by friends. But, if anxiety and depression lead to the social problems, or reverse, is a little hard to know.
The current study led by Keith Burt, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Vermont, used data from Project Competence, which has followed a group of 205 individuals from middle childhood (ages 8 to 12) over 20 years into young adulthood. Detailed interviews with participants and reports from their parents, teachers, and classmates were used to create measures of so-called internalizing problems (anxiety, depressed mood, being withdrawn) and social competence (how well one functions in relation to other people, particularly with respect to getting along with others and forming close relationships).
Later, the inter-relationships of these measures were examined over time, considering the stability of each (i.e., children who have social problems at the start of the study may continue to have them over time).
It was found that young people having more internalizing problems (such as anxiety and depression) at the start of the study were more likely to have those problems in adolescence and young adulthood. Those who were socially competent at the start of the study remained socially competent as they grew up.
But, along with this evidence of continuity, the study found evidence of spillover effects, where social problems contributed to increasing internalizing symptoms over time.
Children who were less socially competent in childhood were more likely to have symptoms of anxious or depressed mood in adolescence. Likewise, young people who were less socially competent in adolescence were at greater risk for symptoms of anxiety and depression in young adulthood.
The findings did not change when the researchers took into account some other possible explanations, such as intellectual functioning, the quality of parenting, social class, and such problems as fighting, lying, and stealing. And the results were generally the same for both males and females.
"Overall, our research suggests that social competence, such as acceptance by peers and developing healthy relationships, is a key influence in the development of future internalizing problems such as anxiety and depressed mood, especially over the transition years from adolescence into young adulthood. These results suggest that although internalizing problems have some stability across time, there is also room for intervention and change. More specifically, youth at risk for internalizing problems might benefit from interventions focused on building healthy relationships with peers," said Burt.
The study appears in the latest issue of the journal Child Development.