When Peers Help and Harm: Adolescent Social Structure and Mental Health

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Human social life requires navigating complex patterns of relationships that create underlying structures of social integration. In adolescence, teens manage close friendships while simultaneously evaluating their social position in broader peer groups and the larger school peer context. Social structures in each dimension of the peer network can relate to symptoms of mental distress, including depressive symptoms and self-harm, both critical health risks in this life course stage. Moreover, any association between network structure and mental health likely depends on contextual features that shape social relations and health, such as gender and friends’ mental health. In this dissertation, I examine distinct dimensions of social integration and contextual features of networks to clarify when social integration among peers relates to better and worse mental health for teens. Using survey data from PROSPER, I test the association of network position with depressive symptoms and self-harm by gender and friends’ mental distress.

In Chapter 2, I disentangle local and global social integration among peers by gender and friends’ depression to clarify how adolescent network integration relates to depressive symptoms. Analyses indicate global integration is protective for both boys and girls. Friends’ depression is largely irrelevant for boys. For girls with depressive friends, increased global integration predicts increased depressive symptoms, while greater local integration buffers associations between friends’ depression and girls’ own depressive symptoms. Results indicate the importance of considering distinct types of social integration by gender for depressive symptoms in adolescence.

Chapter 3 examines peer networks and self-harm, or intentional injury to one’s own body. I find that self-harm is largely unrelated to social position for boys, with only a small association between self-harm and being in the core of a peer group. For girls, however, greater integration among close friends and the overall peer network is associated with lower self-harm, unless friends are harming, then greater integration predicts higher self-harm. These results indicate that structures of cohesive close friendships and status among peers reduce self-harm risks for girls only in contexts where integration does not reinforce behaviors of harming peers.

Overall, this work demonstrates that distinct dimensions of social integration in peer social networks relate to depressive symptoms and self-harm in adolescence. However, these levels of structural integration should be considered in connection with features that shape the meaning of network structure. Further research is needed to define mechanisms linking integration to mental health, particularly self-harm, and to examine the consequences of this interplay between adolescent social integration and mental distress for health in subsequent life course stages.






Copeland, Molly (2020). When Peers Help and Harm: Adolescent Social Structure and Mental Health. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10161/21000.


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