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Teens can ‘catch’ bad moods from peers

Young people can catch moods from friends and bad moods are more contagious than good moods, according to a paper published by Oxford and Birmingham Universities.

The authors of the research believe the study could improve understanding of emotional wellbeing and mental health among teenagers.

Author 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.

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

When a teenager ‘catches’ a low mood from a friend, the friend feels uplifted in the process. There was no evidence adolescents either avoid or seek contact with peers in a negative or positive frame of mind - suggesting mood does not determine popularity in the short term and socialising with someone in a low mood is a risk most are prepared to take.

Young people’s moods become more similar to people they spend time with, a bad mood is more infectious than a good mood and these individuals did not select others with whom to socialise simply to match the way they felt themselves.

`The study used two groups of adolescents with 79 in total, aged 15 to 19-years-old and each group was on a short residential classical music performance tour. Each young musician recorded daily moods and social interactions, with the situation allowing the study to overcome the challenges of environment, dispersed social networks and timeframes, which limited previous studies.

The results were identical from both groups and partly contradict previous research as previous studies had suggested good mood is more contagious than bad, and that bad mood is associated with social withdrawal. This study showed no evidence that teens feeling low withdrew.

The research was conducted before social interaction was severely restricted by the coronavirus pandemic.

Dr Block added: “What makes our study special is that, by having people in a group with few external influences, experiencing the same environment and spending their time together, we could see who interacted with whom and how that made others feel.”

“We saw, first, the interaction, and then how mood became more similar. As mood changes frequently and is influenced by various environmental factors that differ between individuals, many studies find collecting comprehensive data difficult. But because our participants were living together, we overcame that challenge too,” he concluded.

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?”

Sharing the load: Contagion and tolerance of mood in social networks

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