Constant venting over crushes, popularity or other personal problems may lead to anxiety and depression in girls -- but not in boys, according to new research.
A study of 813 students ages 8 to 15 found that excessive discussions and rumination about problems strengthened friendships for both sexes, but those tighter bonds came at a cost for girls.
The study appears in this month’s issue of the journal Developmental Psychology.
Lead author Amanda Rose, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Missouri-Columbia, said the results might reflect a cultural tendency among girls to blame themselves when they aren’t invited to parties or when boys don’t call back.
“The more they talk about it, the more depressed and anxious they feel,” she said.
The findings add a cautionary note to the perennial advice to the young that they should share their problems rather than bottle them up.
“Talking about problems is a good thing, but too much talk is too much of a good thing,” Rose said.
Researchers used questionnaires to assess students’ depression, anxiety, friendship quality and tendency to rehash problems. Students were surveyed twice, six months apart.
The questionnaire measuring rumination asked students whether specific statements applied to them, such as: “When we talk about a problem that one of us has, we usually talk about that problem every day even if nothing new has happened.”
Researchers first looked at whether depression or anxiety increased the likelihood that students would obsessively discuss their problems. They found that boys and girls with emotional difficulties were more likely to ruminate about their troubles.
Researchers then examined the effect of rumination on students’ emotional well-being and friendships.
Boys reported no change in feelings of anxiety or depression, but girls said they felt worse, although the change was modest.
Rose said girls got caught up in a “vicious cycle” in which depression or anxiety spurred rumination, which in turn led to increased depression or anxiety.
She said parents should realize that their daughters could be at risk for depression or anxiety despite having supportive friends.
The study did not calculate the percentage of girls who exhibited the behavior.
William M. Bukowski, a psychology professor at Concordia University in Montreal who was not involved in the research, said the findings challenged notions about friendship.
“We believe that friendship is good and enhances emotional well-being, but these intense, interpersonal conversations with friends decrease one’s well-being,” he said.
Carol S. Dweck, a psychology professor at Stanford University who was not connected to the study, said the findings were in line with previous ones that have shown support groups can reinforce eating disorders or delinquent behaviors.
“You might think having social support is conducive to mental health,” she said. “But getting people with issues together doesn’t always make things better.”