Impact of Friend Group Gender Composition on Depression in Adolescence

Alessia McGowan




Professor of Psychology, Director of Graduate Studies

Project Summary

Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) has been identified as the single most debilitating illness in terms of years lived in disability (YLD) according to the World Health Organization (Ferrari et al., 2013). One variable that is known to buffer against depression in both males and females is social support. However, no prior work has assessed the ways in which the gender composition of an adolescent’s social support network may contribute to either promoting or preventing onset of Major Depressive Disorder. The goal of our current project was to determine if having a predominantly male friend group is in fact buffering against depression for girls in adolescence using a regression-based model and data from a large, nationally representative sample. We also investigated whether this effect would be especially pronounced in girls with an elevated polygenic risk for Major Depressive Disorder. This project provides insight into which aspects of social support are most important in terms of shielding adolescents from the debilitating grasp of depression. Our results revealed that girls with a higher proportion of opposite sex friends tended to have higher depression scores than their female peers with fewer opposite-sex friends. This result reached significance when we examined its interaction with genetic vulnerability for depression. Girls with elevated polygenic risk for MDD and relatively more male friends scored significantly higher on the Center for Epidemiological Studies Depression (CES-D) scale than those girls at relatively low genetic risk.

Throughout this experience of designing and conducting and independent honors thesis project, I have learned an incredible amount. In order to complete a time-intensive project in just one year, organization and planning were crucial. I learned that there were certain aspects of the research project for which investing more time ended up paying in dividends down the road; however, I also quickly realized that there were other phases during which moving along to stay on schedule had to be prioritized. I also learned how to organize, manage, and analyze very large and complex survey data in a statistical package in which I had never worked previously. Perhaps most importantly, I gained the personal confidence that I could see an entire research project through from the very beginning to the very end. I am certain that I will draw upon all the skills I learned this year in my future research endeavors.

An enormous thank you to my mentor, Dr. Sara Jaffee, for her belief in me and for her steadfast support throughout the entirety of this research process.