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The young teen years are a ripe time for forming friendships. It’s an age when kids are particularly focused on peer relationships and social status, developing their sense of identity and social skills.
Having friendships (or even just feeling a sense of belonging) at school has many benefits. Kids who have friends may adjust to school better and be somewhat protected from peer victimization. Those who make friends in early adolescence tend to have better health and well-being in adulthood, making it critical to a child’s development.
But, while research on teen friendships has confirmed their importance, very few studies have looked into how to foster friendship at these early ages. Even fewer studies have considered how to encourage friendships across ethnic difference—which is of growing importance in an increasingly diverse society.
Now, a new study conducted by Leslie Echols of Missouri State University and Jerreed Ivanich of the University of Colorado has found that the famous “36 questions” that can help people feel close or even fall in love could help prompt friendships in young teens. Not only does this exercise appear to help kids feel closer, it seems to work equally well for middle school boys and girls and across ethnic differences.
“There’s a need for a program that’s direct and intentional for building friendships and providing opportunities for more social acceptance,” says Echols. “This one seems promising.”
Using questions to build closeness
The 36 questions activity, also known as Fast Friends, involves pairing people together and having them take turns answering questions that become increasingly more personal and require more vulnerability. It has been shown to reduce prejudice and anxiety when people from different cultures are paired up, but it has never been used as a classroom-wide activity in middle school. That’s what Echols wanted to try.
For her study, 301 young teens at a public Midwestern middle school rated how well they knew other students of the same gender in their class. The researchers used this information to pair them with a student they didn’t know well or consider a friend—either from the same ethnic group or a different ethnic group. Because the school had mostly white and Hispanic students, kids from other ethnic groups (Black, Native American, mixed ethnicity, etc.) were grouped together.