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It seems that teenagers share more than clothes and secrets. 

There is a newly discovered contagion running rampant among teens, and it has been staring us blankly in the face all along. 

A UK study has found that teenagers can “catch” moods from their friends

Unfortunately, negative moods appear to be more contagious than positive.

The collaborative study, conducted by Oxford and Birmingham Universities, examines “emotional contagion” among teenagers to analyze the impact of individuals’ moods within a shared peer group.

It found that teens’ moods become similar to those of their friends they spend a lot of time with. They tolerate different moods, with grumpy teenagers being no less popular with their peers than those with a more cheerful disposition.

The research was based on two musical ensembles with musicians ages 15-19 who took part in concert tours abroad. During the tour, in the summer of 2018, each of the 79 participants kept a diary recording daily moods and social interactions.

Dr. Per Block of Oxford’s Leverhulme Centre for Demographic Science said, “Our study shows conclusively that individuals are affected by how others around them are feeling. Mood is contagious, and though both positive and negative moods are ‘caught,’ bad moods are more potent.”

On a positive note, the researchers found that mood did not determine popularity. Though teenagers can catch a friend’s bad mood, they can also influence and impact them with their own more positive mood, gently lifting them out of their pit of despair.

Dr. Block remarks, “We hope it is a step towards understanding why people fall into prolonged low states, the social factors that determine emotional well being in adolescents, and, in the long run, how it may be possible to provide emotional support leading to improved mental health.” 

Surprisingly, the findings contradict earlier research which suggested that good moods are more contagious than bad ones and that bad mood is associated with social withdrawal. This study showed no evidence that teenagers who feel low withdraw from their friends.

Vice-chair of the British Psychological Society’s Division for Educational and Child Psychology, Vivian Hill, observes, “This is an important piece of research, using a fascinating methodology, at a time of increasing concern about the mental health needs of young people. Current research looking at the mental health and mood states of children and young people suggests that the level of incidence of low mood states is much higher than was initially understood. Therefore, we need to be aware of mood contagion and make sure the right support and services is given to schools and communities, and offering help to adolescents who are experiencing negative mood states.”

As the pandemic continues to disrupt learning and social contacts across much of the world, the emotional wellbeing of children and young adults continues to be a source of major concern among health and education professionals.

Co-author Dr. Stephanie Burnett Heyes, of the University of Birmingham’s School of Psychology, added: “This study raises so many outstanding questions, especially in Covid-19 times, such as: what do we lose when interaction is not face-to-face, and what is preserved? And finally, if everyone is struggling, is it too emotionally risky to connect with others and potentially ‘catch’ their low mood?”

Teenagers are still forming their worldviews and sense of self. The angsty teen will more than likely turn into a thriving adult. It’s vital that they are allowed to identify and process through their emotions now. Their circle of friends may just be one of the safest, healthiest (or most dangerous and unstable) places to be, depending on their shared moods.

It’s something to think about.