Adolescence is a unique developmental period. It is a time characterized by a strong desire for independence combined with an increased need for social support from peers. One of the strongest indicators of psychological health in adolescents is a sense of meaningful connection with peers (Boivin, Hymel, & Bukowski, 1995; Rubin & Mills, 1988; Rubin & Stewart, 1996; Qualter & Munn, 2002). Thus, adolescence may be a time of particular psychological vulnerability to the risks associated with feelings of social isolation from peers.
Although feelings of social isolation may contribute to the occurrence of poor psychological health during adolescence, a question remains about the influence of protective factors on this relationship. A review of the literature on adolescent health presents an interesting research question: Can the protective elements of strong connections to school and family compensate for the absence of close and meaningful peer relationships during the adolescent years? Considering the potential negative outcomes of social isolation in adolescence, it follows that these protective factors may also buffer the potential negative psychological effects associated with feelings of social isolation in adolescence. Yet, the relationship between social isolation, psychological health risks, and related protective factors in adolescence is poorly understood.
Using a sample of 4,746 adolescents in grades 7-12 from a large, Midwestern metropolitan area, this study explores the associations between social isolation and psychological health such as depressive symptoms, self-esteem, and suicidal behavior. The influence of protective factors including family connectedness, school connectedness, and academic achievement is also examined.
Benefits of Adolescent Peer Relationships
A myriad of psychological benefits exist for adolescents who report close connections to peers. Children and adolescents with close and supportive friendships report higher levels of peer acceptance, increased social competence, higher levels of motivation and active school involvement, and lower levels of behavioral problems as well as increased levels of self-worth, social competence, leadership skills, and improved school performance (Hansen, Giacoletti, & Nangle, 1995; Savin-Williams & Berndt, 1990). Further, the quality of peer relationships in childhood and adolescence may be one of the most important indicators of future psychological health (Boivin et al., 1995, Parker & Asher, 1993; Rubin, Bukowski, & Parker, 1998).
As adolescents navigate their social world, close peer relationships offer many protective benefits. Adolescents formulate group alliances to provide psychological support and a sense of belonging. An increased need emerges for social support and emotional connections with the peer group. They desire confidants with whom to talk about their peers, personal lives, and challenges. The deeper qualities of friendship such as similarities in personality and emotional intimacy become essential components of adolescent relationships (Claes, 1992; Pollack & Shuster, 2000).
Peer relationships serve as a major influence in the development and validation of a sense of self-efficacy and self-esteem (Bandura, 1982). The quality and closeness of peer relationships often become integrated into the adolescent's self-concept and personal identity (Rubin & Mills, 1988). Close relationships with peers are consistently associated with emotional well-being in adolescence. Therefore, adolescence may be a time of particular vulnerability to the psychological health risks associated with feelings of social isolation (Rubin, LeMare, & Lollis, 1990).
Adolescence and Psychological Health Risks
Social isolation during adolescence is often a very painful emotional experience. Adolescents who do not report having close friendships consistently have lower levels of self-esteem and more psychological symptoms of maladjustment (Berndt, Hawkins, & Jiao, 1999; Stocker, 1994). …