Good Friends Protect Shy College Freshmen from Loneliness and Depression
Transitioning to college means not just figuring out new academic expectations but also a whole new social world. Incoming college students are leaving high school friends, typically for a larger environment in which they know few of their peers. For some students, this may be an exciting opportunity. For others, particularly those who are shy, this can be a scary experience.
The stress associated with the college transition can lead to depression, loneliness, and generally poor well-being. My student, Tiffany Absher, and I wanted to further understand the impact that shyness and friendship may have on adjustment during the first year of college. In particular, we had two sets of questions.
First, how do friendships change during the first year of college, and do students have the same best friends at the end of the year as they had at the beginning? Do friendship patterns look different for shy students?
Secondly, we were interested in how friendship and shyness impact emotional well-being. Does greater shyness predict poorer well-being? Does quality of friendship matter? Is the influence of friendship on well-being more important for shy students than for other students?
To explore these questions, we studied a group of first-year students at a small, public liberal arts college. These students completed surveys in the first month of their first semester (Fall) and the last two months of their second semester (Spring).
Both times, students reported the name of their most important friend and rated the quality of that friendship. High quality friendships involve emotional support, companionship, and disclosure, while lower quality friendships include more criticism and conflict. Students also reported on their shyness, depression and anxiety, loneliness, and satisfaction with life in both Fall and Spring.
We expected that first-year college students would often replace high school friendships with new college friends. However, that did not seem to be the case. Instead, more than 50% of the students had the same best friend across their entire first year of college.
Even more surprising, at the end of their first year, less than 20% of the students listed someone they met in college as their best friend. Even the students who changed friends were likely to have a new friend that they knew before entering college rather than someone they had recently met.
We also found that shy students were more likely to have the same friends at the end of the year as they had at the beginning compared to less shy students. This finding is consistent with research by Jens Asendorpf who found that shy college students were more likely to maintain pre-college friendships and took longer to form new relationships in college. Thus, shy students, compared to less shy students, may rely more heavily on their established best friends for emotional support and reassurance as they navigate college.
Our second goal was to explore how these friendships help students. We found that the impact of friendship differed depending on students’ level of shyness.
As you can see in the graph below, when shy students (on the right) had lower quality friendships, they experienced more negative outcomes. These included depression and anxiety (psychologists call these “internalizing symptoms”), as well as more loneliness and less satisfaction with life. However, when shy students had high quality friendships, they had low negative outcomes. In fact, if you look at the figure, you will see that shy students with a supportive best friend didn’t differ in terms of negative outcomes from the students who weren’t shy.
Figure 1: Shyness and friendship quality are related to internalizing symptoms
This finding suggests that high quality friendships play an important role in protecting students from the negative effects of shyness. Shy students experienced more loneliness and lower life satisfaction and, thus, had a particularly difficult time adjusting to the transition. However, having a good friend who provided emotional support during the transition limited these negative outcomes for shy students.
This is consistent with my previous research which found that shy children are particularly influenced by the environment during the transition to middle school. Somewhat surprisingly, that study showed that transitioning to middle school had generally positive effects on children’s peer relationships. Immediately after the transition, victimization and exclusion decreased overall. As kids are entering a new school, they are so focused on figuring out where they stand in the social hierarchy (such as who their friends will be and who is popular) that they may engage in fewer negative interactions.
Because this new focus provided shy children with a break from peers’ negative perceptions of them, they had greater decreases in mistreatment compared to less shy children following the middle school transition. Thus, when the peer environment was more positive, shy children had better outcomes.
Combined, these findings suggest that school transitions may be an opportunity, rather than a barrier, for shy students. However, the right social supports—particularly in the form of high quality friendships—are essential for a successful transition.
For Further Reading
Shell, M. D. & Absher, T. N. (2019). Effects of shyness and friendship on socioemotional adjustment during the college transition. Personal Relationships, 26, 386-405. doi: 10.1111/pere.12285
Asendorpf, J. B. (2000). Shyness and adaptation to the social world of university. In Crozier, W. R. (ed.), Shyness: Development, Consolidation, and Change. Routledge, New York, pp. 103–120.
Shell, M. D., Gazelle, H. & Faldowski, R. A. (2014). Anxious solitude and the middle school transition: A Child × Environment Model of peer exclusion and victimization trajectories. Developmental Psychology, 50, 1569-1589. doi: 10.1037/a0035528
Madelynn Shell is an Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia’s College at Wise. She studies peer relationships and school transitions in children, adolescents, and emerging adults.