Peer Protection: Social Connections and Adolescent Mental Health in Summer Youth Development Programs


Introduction: Social connectedness is vital for adolescent psychosocial development and mental health. Because summer can be a time of social transition and peer network disruption, summer youth development programs provide a place for adolescents to develop socially and emotionally. The purpose of this study was to determine the influence of psychological distress on adolescent social connections at a summer youth development program.

Methods: Adolescents, ages 10-14, enrolled in a central Texas Boys & Girl Club reported psychological distress (i.e., Kessler Psychological Distress Scale; K10) and friendship nominations (e.g., who they hung out with most in the summer program) in May 2023 and August 2023 via researcher administered surveys. Separable temporal exponential random graph modeling was used to determine if psychological distress influenced the formation or persistence of social connections across the summer.

Results: Adolescents (n=47; M=11.0 years old; SD=1.3; 51.1% female) reported low levels of psychological distress (MK10=18.8; SD K10= 7.6) indicating they were “likely to be [psychologically] well” with higher K10 scores reflecting elevated risk for psychological distress. Adolescents were significantly more likely to receive friendship nominations over time if they reported greater K10 scores; however, greater K10 scores were not significantly associated with reduced odds of sending new nominations. Similarity in K10 scores did not increase the odds of friendship nominations forming or persisting between adolescents.

Conclusions: Results suggest adolescents are aware of those in their peer circles who experience psychological distress and may respond pro-socially by hanging out with these youth (i.e., sending a tie to people with higher distress). Future research should further explore if integration into social circles (i.e., degree of network centrality for adolescents with elevated psychological distress) and the quality of relationships within peer networks serve as protective factors for adolescent mental health.

Dynamic Network Visual

Apr 15, 2024
American Academy of Health Behavior 2024
Savannah, Georgia